Ohio High School Football is viewed by some as a religious experience. The pride some people feel towards their high school, whether that school is their alma mater, the school their children attend or will attend, or in some cases both, is unmatched in any other level of football, professional or otherwise. Such a deep and meaningful pride becomes even stronger and more profound when you move away from the big cities and out into the small towns of Ohio.
Last year during the High School Fan Experience, we did not encounter such a small town. We stuck to taking in games in major cities, suburbs, or towns large enough to field a school in Division 2 or 3. We did not see the sort of small town where sidewalks roll up and stores shut down so that the entire town could travel to the stadium or huddle around radios just to listen to their beloved football team.
Needless to say, I knew that I had to include such a town when I brought the Fan Experience back in 2018.
Nelsonville, Ohio is a quaint little town just to the northwest of Athens, Ohio, and home to the Nelsonville-York High School Buckeyes. The Buckeyes may be a Division 5 school, but their football team has routinely shown their strength and fortitude against schools much larger than they. Nelsonville-York has a state championship to their credit, back in 1981, and was a semifinalist in the Division 5 State Tournament in 2017. For residents of Nelsonville, the Buckeyes are their pride and joy, and their Friday nights are made to watch the Orange and Brown play some football.
Meanwhile, opposing Nelsonville-York that night was a school from Division 7, where the smallest of the small schools compete in high school football in Ohio. The Trimble High School Tomcats traveled from just 11 miles away to take on the Buckeyes that night in a showdown between local, non-conference rivals. Trimble High School brings in students from the tiny towns of Jacksonville, Trimble, and Glouster, as well as some surrounding township areas to make up a student body of just a few hundred. Similar to the Buckeyes, the Tomcats have a longstanding tradition of good football, including a trip to the State Finals in 2013. Signs stating “Go Tomcats” can be seen throughout the area in support of Trimble, and red Tomcat flags will fly throughout the towns on game nights.
With a full day to soak in Dave Boston Field in Buchtel, Ohio, an entirely new Fan Experience took place at Nelsonville-York High School!
Dave Boston Field, home to the Nelsonville-York Buckeyes, is quite small compared to the stadiums I have observed in previous experiences, and yet seems larger than life during a football game. Sitting just to the west of the nearby Nelsonville-York campus, the stadium boasts 14 rows of bleachers along either sideline, with the home fan bleachers extending farther towards each endzone than the visiting fan bleachers. A running track surrounds the playing surface, with a fence standing along the entire length of the track. Fans without a seat in the bleachers congregated right up along the fence, sometimes three or four rows deep, for almost the full length of the track.
Standard concession fare was available at Boston Field, and at reasonable prices as well. You could get your regular burgers, hot dogs, pretzels, and nachos, but there were some unique selections as well. A Domino’s Pizza wagon stood near the visiting fans bleachers, selling slices of pizza and full orders of breadsticks. In addition, sloppy joes and freshly popped popcorn were available at the main concession stand by the stadium entrance. That smell of fresh popcorn upon entering Boston Field was unmistakable, seemingly pulling you over to purchase some.
A unique quirk of Boston Field is the fact that so much of the stadium is visible from outside its walls. Most stadiums are secluded or otherwise walled off so that you cannot get a good view without purchasing a ticket to go inside. Almost the entire western third of the stadium, behind the west endzone, was open and visible from nearby houses and roads. Such an opening led to the brilliant idea of some local neighbors to offer up their backyards as parking spaces for fans with pickup trucks. These fans used their pickup trucks not just for tailgating, but also for elevation so they could sit up high enough to see the entire field without obstruction. Before kickoff, I walked over and told everyone occupying one of the trucks that they had the best seat in the house, and I was not exaggerating when I said as much.
When tents are erected for tailgating hours before the game is scheduled to kick off, you know you are in for an exciting night. When those tents were already standing when I arrived 4 hours before the scheduled kickoff, it makes it obvious that I would bear witness to something truly special that night. By the time the game kicked off, those two tents had multiplied many times over, and several cars, trucks, and SUVs were being used as tables and shelter for a makeshift tailgate party.
Early on, it was clear that these fans were dedicated to making an extravagant event out of the Nelsonville-York football game. Kids tossed a football around and parents set up camp in lawn chairs, as other fans tended to the grills and crock pots. Car batteries were utilized in some cases to power up crock pots and other electric equipment, something I had not previously seen at a high school football tailgate. Some Trimble fans even set up shop adjacent to the Nelsonville-York fans, sharing pleasantries and even food and beverages in a friendly show of good will prior to the big rivalry game.
I didn’t get the chance to see what was being cooked up, but I didn’t need to see the food to know how tasty it was. The smell of delicious grilled beef and pork filled the evening air, both in the parking lots and inside the stadium itself. It was not until the sun went down that the scope of the tailgate party could be truly realized. Smoke from every grill and bonfire had created a thin haze around the stadium lights, not obstructing any view or clogging any airways, but enough to let me know that some serious grilling had taken place on that night.
You know you are surrounded by passionate parents and fans when there are no seats left in the stadium and the game does not kick off for another half an hour. The Nelsonville-York Buckeyes mean so much to these parents and fans that their Friday, or in the case of their game against Trimble, Saturday, evenings in the fall are almost exclusively reserved for rooting on their team. Orange and brown filled the bleachers from end to end, and those that could not find a seat simply stood along the outside of the running track, hoping for a view of what might be the next big play.
There were parents and other volunteers at Boston Field several hours before the game was to be played. From the onset, smoke from grills could be seen emanating from behind the concession stand, and the smell of popcorn filled the air as someone manned the movie theater sized popcorn popper. Tickets were at a premium leading up to the game, as the few ticket booths at Boston Field were quickly engulfed by what seemed like hundreds of eager fans hoping to gain admittance that night.
With Nelsonville-York being a comparatively small school, the student section was predictably much smaller than what I have been used to while covering the High School Fan Experience. That being said, the amount of noise created by the small but passionate student section was truly impressive, and the chants and cheers were on par with any group of students I have seen. They were loud, they were well coordinated, and their pride for Buckeye football was unmistakable.
The Nelsonville-York students wore all white to the game, with many wearing a custom shirt made to commemorate the annual Trimble/Nelsonville-York game. To go along with the white shirts, several students donned white and orange face paint. It was a great show of unity by the Buckeye students, and made the evening all the more visually pleasing.
Worth noting is the fact that the Nelsonville-York marching band was seated next to their fellow classmates in the student section. The band is known as the Pride of the Buckeyes, and for good reason. For a marching band as small as the one at Nelsonville-York, the sound created was quite good. Perhaps the smallest marching band the High School Fan Experience will see in 2018, they more than made up for their lack of size by creating a well tuned and well timed sound.
Both Trimble and Nelsonville-York have playoff aspirations in 2018, so while the game would ultimately not mean anything towards a conference championship and likely have very little impact on whether or not they would make the state tournament, there was a strong desire on both sides to start off their respective seasons with a victory. Nelsonville-York had won their last three matchups against Trimble dating back to 2015, and the Tomcats were hoping to exact revenge on the Buckeyes’ home turf.
Strong defense was the story of the game as neither team could muster much on the offensive side, save for an occasional big run. Trimble was able to score just before halftime to take a 7-0 lead, but that would be all of the scoring for the first half. Nelsonville-York had an opportunity to score on the final play of the half but would come up short of the endzone.
When the second half began, though, it was all Trimble. The Tomcats would storm out to a 21-0 lead before finally allowing a Buckeye touchdown late in the third quarter. However, those would be the only Nelsonville-York points of the night, as Trimble’s defense would shut down the Buckeye offense for the rest of the game. Nelsonville-York would be plagued with turnovers throughout the fourth quarter, and eventually Trimble took an insurmountable 34-7 lead late in the game.
Gaining possession in the closing minutes, the Tomcats were able to run out the remaining time, finishing off an impressive victory over the Buckeyes. For the first time since 2014, Trimble had defeated Nelsonville-York, the final score totaling 34-7. While the handshake line was generally civil and there was no ill will between fans of the two teams, there were a couple notable Nelsonville-York players who took exception to some of their Trimble opponents, shouting at the opposing players and looking visibly upset. Other than that, both teams congratulated one another with class after a hard fought game.
My experience at Nelsonville-York High School was unlike anything I had ever seen as part of the Fan Experience, but certainly one that I will never forget. Seeing an unmistakable passion from both fan bases, and observing players fighting cramps and stomach illnesses throughout the game made me realize just how much these folks care about their football teams. You often hear about civic pride when it comes to high school football, and there is no greater example of strong civic pride than when you venture to the small towns of Ohio to take in some high school football.
While my roots lie in the imposing stadiums of big city football, I can safely say that you do not fully understand Ohio high school football until you attend a game in a small town. The passion, pageantry, and pride involved, while on a smaller scale than in the bigger cities, is just as intense and powerful as anywhere in the state. Nelsonville, Ohio is one of the best examples of that pride and passion, as their love of the Buckeyes is as on par with any school I have visited until now. Nelsonville-York High School, I salute you!