I’m still in disbelief. I likely will be for quite a while. But it became a reality last Saturday a little after 5:30 PM. My high school football team, the Carey Blue Devils, are Ohio State Champions after defeating the Coldwater Cavaliers 26-14 in the Division VI State Championship Game!
Some schools, like Coldwater, are fortunate enough to be in the position to go to the big game most years or every year. But this was the first State Championship appearance for the Blue Devils since 1975. 46 years. Growing up as a kid in Carey, I had only heard stories of the 1975 team’s run that almost made them sound mythical. Heavy underdogs. Little known farmboys who knocked off perennial powerhouse Newark Catholic to capture the first State Championship in Carey history.
I never thought I would get to see an even more remarkable run with my own two eyes. Or if I did, I’d be old “Grandpa Luke” with grandbabies by the time it happened. But last Saturday’s win capped a season for the ages! The Blue Devils finished the year 15-1, on a 15-game winning streak, conference champions for the first time since 2013, and they now join the 1975 team as Ohio State Champions!
But to me, there was so much more to this magical run than just firsts, records and hardware. Those things are important, sure. But this past season has truly shown me what the saying “We are Carey!” really means. It’s more than just a Blue Devil battle cry. More than just a saying meant to stir up school spirit. It’s an affirmation of support that is extended to the football team, yes. But it’s a saying that shows its deepest roots when one sees the kind of community Carey, Ohio is. It’s at the very heart of what it means to be a true Blue Devil. “We are Carey!” is the community saying:
“No matter where everyone is in life, what kind of social standing everyone has in the community, or whether some people get along with others, we all love and rally around these boys. They are ours. They are somebody’s brother, son, cousin, student or friend. We love them no matter what!”
This video was of the community welcoming the team back to town after the big win, and certainly put that love on full display:
Carey may be a tiny farm village of 2,600 people. But EVERYBODY was downtown, ready to greet the boys as the buses parked in the middle of the square. My dad got to celebrate with a few of his classmates from the Class of 1984, while I hugged several friends, coaches and old teammates. Carey certainly has an energy all its own most days. But last Saturday night kicked things up a few notches! The run this team completed just brought the entire community together. But even before the winning streak, State Championship and celebrations, I sensed something special could possibly be in the cards around Week 4 of the season.
The Turning Point
I remember doing color commentary for the game against Colonel Crawford. It’s always a blast doing commentary with Eric Mulholland as one half of the “Mo and Animal Show.” But from my perch in the pressbox, I truly got to see this team start to grow. This was the first week where I noticed marked improvement, and I saw this kind of growth week in and week out. Right up through the State Championship win. They morphed from a good Carey team, to a great Carey team, to Ohio’s best right in front of my very eyes!
The Colonel Crawford game was the very first game to truly show me that this was no ordinary Carey team. Every Blue Devil team aims to be stout, physical, disciplined and play together as a unit. But these Blue Devils just seemed to respond at 110% with whatever they were doing. In this case, it was erasing a 17-14 halftime deficit, and making a very good Colonel Crawford team look downright silly, winning the game going away, 35-17, with a mix of physicality, athleticism, heart and toughness the Eagles simply could not match.
The next point where I realized something special might be at hand, was nine weeks later. Week 13. By that point, the Blue Devils had already won the Northern 10 Championship, and were at 11-1 after dominant wins over Van Buren (33-0), and Tinora (20-0) through the first two rounds of the Playoffs. Then came their first true underdog moment. The Blue Devils were pitted against an undefeated 12-0 Crestview Cougars team.
Silencing the Naysayers
I have rarely been truly annoyed at pregame predictions and smacktalk. It comes with the territory. But everywhere I looked, I saw it and heard it. “Oh, Carey’s had a tremendous season. But Crestview’s too good. Once they get going, it’ll be lights out. Good luck, Blue Devils. You’re gonna need it.” I heard several variations of that junk for at least 5-6 days. To say I was pissed off by the end of the week would be an understatement! But to everyone’s shock and surprise, Carey didn’t just beat Crestview. They spanked the Cougars 42-14! They sent an undefeated team packing, and pulled off their first truly unexpected win.
Next up, the Blue Devils followed up their impressive win over Crestview, with an equally dominant 31-7 win over Liberty Center to capture their first Regional Championship in 27 years! Although honestly, I wasn’t worried about Liberty Center. Yes, they were a good team. But I was confident in the boys’ chances to keep rolling along, especially after they manhandled Crestview like they did.
After they advanced to the Final Four from winning that one, then came another big underdog moment. The outside talk surrounding the game against Springfield wasn’t quite as loud as Crestview, but I still heard the same tired old lines, “Oh, Springfield is too good. Beau Brungard, their quarterback, is a stud. He’s a Mr. Football finalist and he’s already committed to Youngstown State. What can these guys do to stop him?”
But again, the Blue Devils showed up to quiet a bunch of ignorant, loud naysayers. They contained Beau Brungard, ran the ball down Springfield’s throat, and won a MASSIVE game on a snowy Saturday night in Euclid, 26-13 to advance to the State Championship Game! And for the record, when I say snowy, I mean snowy. It was like Mom and I, and the rest of the fans were sitting in a football-themed snowglobe, and the man upstairs kept shaking it. The amount of snow on the ground was absurd!
Gearing up for Goliath
Then Coldwater came knocking. For those of you who aren’t Carey fans, let me set the scene for you to show you just what the Blue Devils were up against when they were set to face the Cavaliers.
Heading into last Saturday, the defending State Champion Cavaliers had played in the big game eight of the last eleven years, and had won seven (yes, seven) State Championships since 2005. This was a true David vs. Goliath matchup. Even I found myself getting nervous. While I was proud of the boys no matter the result of the big game ended up being, I was truly hoping and praying that they’d have an opportunity to play their best, and not get embarrassed. Did I think they could win this game? Certainly. But I knew they’d have to raise their play several notches to match Coldwater blow for blow. Not many teams in Ohio can match a team from the MAC (Midwest Athletic Conference) step for step. Let alone beat them. The MAC or “Mighty MAC” as it’s called, is a conference here in Ohio known for producing several State Champion teams in just about every sport, especially football. Maria Stein Marion Local leads the way (11 State Championships) and Coldwater is not far behind.
As I was getting ready for bed on the eve of the big game, I said the same prayer, I had been saying for several weeks up to that point:
“God, I know you don’t care about a football game. And I’m not asking for the boys to win. That’s up to them. But please keep them safe and healthy, and at least give them a chance to show what they can do.”
The State Championship
Then came the morning of the big game. Carey was set to face Coldwater at 3 PM that day in Canton at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, and the school was having a sendoff for the football team that morning. I was sick and battling a cold, but I knew I couldn’t miss it. How many more times in my life would I get to see something like this? So Mom and I watched and cheered with the rest of the fans as charter buses carrying the football team left the school parking lot. The Blue Devil Express was officially on its way to Canton, Ohio!
We showed up to the stadium about 40 minutes before kickoff, but once we got inside the stadium, I truly saw how awesome it was! Here was the view fromy my seat:
Once 3 PM rolled around, I was screaming myself hoarse from that spot for the next 2 1/2 hours, rooting for our boys with everything I had in me! The early goings of the game definitely had me nervous though. Coldwater, known for their incredibly powerful offense, promptly marched right down the field and scored a touchdown on their second possession of the game. Couple that with the fact that the Cavalier defense had early success in shutting down our star running back Jordan Vallejo, a big bruising runner we fittingly call “the Winnebago,” I was definitely worried at that point.
But once the Blue Devil offense got rolling thanks to some great blocking by the offensive line, nifty runs by our quarterback Derek Lonsway, tough running by Vallejo and a couple big catches, everything finally seemed like it was going our way. Things went so well in fact, that we led 23-14 at halftime!
But as the old saying goes, “Offense wins games. Defense wins Championships.” And it would come down to our entire defense doing their job in containing that potent Coldwater attack to bring home the title. And contain them they did. Our defense held Coldwater scoreless the entire second half, and the running game steadily drained the clock, until the scoreboard finally read triple zeroes and said, “Carey 26, Coldwater 14.”
I was in disbelief when it first happened, and I still am now as of this article. Not because I didn’t think our boys could win it. But because I had never seen a State Championship in my lifetime. Plus when I realize not only how hard it is for a team to win six games in a row against progressively tougher teams, but also that these guys were definitive underdogs for most of the playoff run, it’s mind boggling that they accomplished what they did!
It Takes a Village
But even though the boys have definitely earned the right to call themselves State Champions with their huge win, I’m realizing how many people had a hand in this. This entire coaching staff prepared the boys in a way that was second to none. Parents also made several sacrifices. They made sure these guys stayed on track with their schoolwork so they could play the game while staying on track to graduate, and they also continued to raise them into first class young men. The sacrifice of all football parents should be recognized and commended. So many people also volunteered to feed this team. I could go on and on as to who had a hand in this win. But there’s also another group of people who have a hand in this State Championship season: Past Blue Devil football players, and current coaches.
I see the hand these men have had in developing this team. The midget football coaches first taught these guys the fundamentals of the game several years ago when they were little boys. Coach Dustin Ritter, Coach Jim Draper and others then helped them polish their game in junior high before they entered high school. And every single coach and volunteer on the high school staff, from Head Coach Jon Mershman, to Assistant Coaches Dave Steen, Bob Damschroder, Jordan Stock, Derek Stock, DJ Dyer and many, many other people too numerous to name all played a key role.
It truly does take a village to not only develop a State Championship football team, but more importantly, it takes a village to raise good kids, and give them a chance to grow up to be great men. Men who will one day join the rest of us as we watch over future generations of Blue Devils, and who will proudly say three words with us that have come to symbolize our proud little town on and off the football field: WE ARE CAREY!