By JAMIE BAKER
Cheerleaders, marching bands, concession stand popcorn and, most of all, the games begin tonight in large cities and rural areas across Ohio as the high school football season kicks off.
You might not find more excitement and enthusiasm for the start of a new football season than tonight in Dola, where Hardin Northern hosts St. Wendelin to kick off the 2014 campaign.
The two proud but struggling programs are trying to get back on their feet.
For both schools, the 2014 season means a return to playing an OHSAA schedule.
At Hardin Northern, a lack of numbers forced the school to abandon varsity football for a junior varsity schedule last season. The one varsity game the Polar Bears did play was a Week 1 26-24 loss to the Mohawks.
Fast forward a year and things are a bit different at Hardin Northern. Former assistant coach Mike Dennis, who helped guide the school to a dozen straight playoff appearances between 1994-2006, has returned as head coach.
Numbers aren’t as much a problem with 30 players on the roster.
The current group of players at Hardin Northern weren’t even in school yet when the Polar Bears won the Division VI state championship in 2004 and were state runners-up in 2002.
They’ve never experienced Hardin Northern football like it was played during the Pete Brunow era when the Polar Bears were one of the top small-school programs in the state.
“I don’t know when the last time they had a winning season here I bet it’s been six, seven or eight years,” Dennis said.
“The kids here don’t know how to win; hopefully, we can get that turned around. We need some success early in that first game to set the tone. It’s going to be crucial for both teams because we’re in the same situation.”
It’s also a year of transition at Hardin Northern as the Polar Bears play an interesting mix of teams as an independent.
The school and the Blanchard Valley Conference cut ties after a 49-year run and HN will be a member of the Northwest Central Conference in 2015.
Dennis is trying to inject a new attitude and a new outlook into the program, but even he admits it’s a slow process.
“It’s all about learning how to win. We want to change the thought process, change the image, change the perception,” he said. “I think the kids want to win. The question is, how do they go about doing it? To get it done you have to get kids to buy into what you’re selling, and sometimes that is tough.”
At St. Wendelin, Jim Bodart faces some of the same challenges Dennis does.
The Mohawks return to a full OHSAA schedule after playing in a league with Michigan-based Christian school club teams during the last three seasons.
St. Wendelin was getting to play football every week while a member of the Christian Athletic League of America, but it wasn’t the same kind of football Bodart grew up playing. The 1992 St. Wendelin grad played for veteran coach Gene Peluso and was a member of the last St. Wendelin team to reach the playoffs (1990) and win a league championship (1991).
“Sure, the football team played and a few people went to the games but there was just something missing. Some of the club teams we were playing, there were different kids each year, there were different coaches and they weren’t from the same schools,” Bodart said.
“One game, when we got there, there was a completely different team than we expected to play. In one game, the officials never showed up and we had to have parents officiate. It was tough to get my arms around all that.
“When the administration was deciding whether we should go back to playing an OHSAA schedule I said yes, without a doubt. We want to make competition, we want to make rivalries and we want to build something that kids want to be part of and I think this is the best way to do that,” he added.
A return to an OHSAA schedule also means a return to league play for the Mohawks in the newly formed Sandusky River League with longtime rivals Lakota, Fremont St. Joseph and Sandusky St. Mary’s.
The Mohawks will start the year with 18 players. There are three seniors and one junior in that group. Bodart hopes a local schedule with a league title to shoot for will help boost those numbers in the future.
“For the kids, getting back to playing an OHSAA schedule is spectacular. It fuels that competitive spirit and rivalry that I know I felt when I was playing. You knew who you were playing year after year because you grew up playing against them and that’s what we’re trying to build back up here. The kids here haven’t had that in football for a long time,” Bodart said.
“It’s great for spirit, pride in the school and everything else. I think a lot of things circle around football. A lot of school spirit can be built in the beginning of the school year in the fall with football and everything that goes along with it.”
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