By JAMIE BAKER
SPORTS EDITOR

A three-hour, 180-mile trip by car separates the small Ohio villages of McComb and Glouster.

But on Saturday, for one morning in Canton, the two towns will be united at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium when each community’s pride and joy, the McComb Panthers and the Trimble Tomcats, play for the OHSAA Division VII state football championship.

McComb is in the flatland of northwest Ohio, surrounded by farmland, and Glouster is located near a large coal field, surrounded by the woods and rolling terrain of southeast Ohio’s Appalachian foothills. As different as the two communities are, the towns are similar in their pride in their schools and the boys who will represent both communities in Canton.

“A factory and farming community would be a good way to describe McComb,” said McComb High School Principal Jeremy Herr, who was originally from Bluffton but came to the community as a teacher before marrying into what he calls a “Panther family.”

“McComb’s district is a large area, about 17-by-12 miles, with very little population. A lot of farmers and some businesses. It’s an outstanding community where people value their schools and have a lot of Panther pride,” Herr said.

Not to be forgotten is the other community in the McComb district — Hoytville. Hoytville was the home of Jackson Township School, which merged with McComb in the early 1960s. The district’s middle school was located in Hoytville for decades before all students were moved to the McComb campus.

“Only probably around 10 percent of our kids come from Hoytville. It’s a small percentage, but some of the toughest kids we have come from Hoytville, including a number on this year’s football team,” Herr remarked.

Glouster is the biggest town in the Trimble School District with a population of around 1,700, or 100 more people than McComb. It’s one of three villages that border one another that make up the district. Jacksonville (population 381) and Trimble (population 390) are the others.

The district was formed in the 1960s when Glouster High School consolidated with adjoining Jacksonville-Trimble High School.

All three were towns where coal mining and brickworks dominated the economy for much of the 20th century.

“We’ve got the three main towns. Family roots here go back a long way with the coal mining business. That’s pretty much gone by the wayside and that’s made things a little more difficult for us funding-wise,” explained Trimble High School Principal Matt Curtis.

“Many people in the district commute to work to Athens, Lancaster and all the way to Columbus. We have a lot of people who work at (Ohio University), too. There are other factories around in the bigger towns. We have a couple of gas stations, a Subway, Dairy Queen, couple of pizza places and mom-and-pop restaurants, the way it is in small towns all over.

“Definitely rural, not much farming because we are in Appalachia. A lot of hills and hollows. We enjoy the small-town feel,” he added.

While proud blue-collar towns like Glouster, whose population peaked at 3,100 in 1920, and other communities in its area are still trying to recover from the loss of the coal-related jobs that left the region, McComb’s a different place than it once was, too.

When Bennett’s Furniture was in business, it dominated McComb’s downtown, operating out of several storefronts and drawing customers to the village from throughout northwest Ohio. When Bennett’s closed in 2013, it left a void in the downtown that community leaders are still trying to fill.

The community’s Heart and Soul project is working to strengthen the direction of the village.

This year’s tournament run to the Division VII state finals has caused the excitement level in both communities to reach a fever pitch.

And at tiny schools like Trimble and McComb, the excitement and community involvement is much different from the tournament runs by Ohio’s biggest schools in Divisions I and II.

For instance, McComb Mayor Charles Latta issued a proclamation, declaring all of this week Panther Pride Week, and asking everyone in the community to wear red and black this week in support of the Panthers.

That’s probably not happening in Lakewood or Cincinnati, where St. Edward and Colerain, who will play for the Division I state title Friday night, are located.

“I can tell you from what I’ve seen as an administrator, there is a lot of pride at McComb, not just about sports but about everything involved with the school. And something about sports really brings a community together,” Herr said. “The kids are amped up and the community is, too.”

Unlike McComb, whose last trip to the state finals came 35 years ago in 1983, when the Panthers won the Division V state crown, Trimble has a more recent state final history. The Tomcats advanced to the finals in 2013 before falling to a powerhouse Marion Local team.

At Trimble and in the other villages that make up the district, it’s like 2013 all over again.

“The excitement level is absolutely high. We went to the finals in 2013, the kids now on this team would have been in the fifth- and sixth-grade level. Sawyer Koons (Ohio’s Division VII Player of the Year) plays the same position that his older brother did in 2013,” Curtis said.

“The Mohawk Mafia, as they nicknamed themselves in 2013, has returned this year. That started as the little kids were looking up to the older kids in school, as they all do.

“Our quarterback has a picture of himself and the quarterback from five years ago, with his arm around him when he was in elementary and middle school, hanging in his locker right now. The small kids know the kids on the team by name and their families see them around town, that’s what’s really special about a small school and community.”

Both schools have also upgraded their stadiums. McComb’s Doc Miller Field got a new pressbox and bleachers during the past couple of years.

At Trimble, an aging concrete Works Progress Administration stadium, built in the 1930s and much like the facilities locally at Bluffton and Ada, was condemned and then demolished last spring.

The stadium demolition forced the Tomcats to play their home opener this year at Athens before bleachers were brought in so the school could at least play its remaining home schedule.

“We did raise money for a new football stadium. We have bleachers on both sides of our field now and it’s all community-generated. The funds, the fundraising and getting the word out was all done by people in our community. A bunch of wins this year and a growing pride has certainly helped that project along,” Curtis said.

“A lot of people were sad to see it go, but it showed the community was willing to come together when we need to and do what we have to for the kids,” he said of replacing the old stadium.

On Saturday, the kids from McComb and Trimble will step onto the field in Canton to pay back some of that support, with a chance to bring a state football championship back to their communities.

Baker, 419-427-8409

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