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Games belong on traditional stage

December 24, 2013
By MATTHEW PEASLEE - Sports writer (mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com) , The Herald-Star

The place where modern football got its start will soon be losing one of its most honored traditions.

For the past 24 years, the Ohio High School Athletic Association has held the state football championships in Stark County - either at the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Fawcett Stadium in Canton or Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon.

Each venue is intimate (seating around 18,000), historic (built in the 1930s) and has become a premier arena for high school football at the grandest stage.

"It's the mecca," Berlin Center Western Reserve coach Andy Hake said before the Blue Devils' 2011 Division VII state semifinal appearance in Massillon.

While other rounds of the playoffs may still be played in either of the two treasured locations, the title game in all seven divisions will now be played at Ohio Stadium in Columbus.

It will be the first time the games have been played on Ohio State's campus since 1989.

It makes since, in a way, to move the championship contests to a more centralized location for the state. Columbus is within three hours to every corner of the state, where it's a bit more of a hike for schools in the western part of Ohio to make the trip to Northeast Ohio.

What doesn't make much sense is playing the games in an empty stadium.

In 2012, the six title games played in Fawcett and Paul Brown stadiums drew a combined 43,911, which is an average of 7,318 per game. Put those people, specks in this case, in the 102,00-seat Horseshoe and the place will look empty.

At least in Stark County, where the first professional football game was played in 1904, fans fill each stadium appropriately and create an exciting, sometimes tense, atmosphere.

It feels like high school football.

Even in West Virginia, where Wheeling Island Stadium hosts the state championship games, there's enough fans to make them look important. Wheeling, like Canton and Massillon, has embraced the WVSSC and it has become a ritual for neutral fans to take in the full day of Super Six games.

In Canton and Massillon, there is even a shuttle to transport attendees from game-to-game on Friday and Saturday; there's that many people interested.

In Columbus, though, that flare will be lost. Early reports say they want the games, which will be divided into two days, to be played back-to-back-to-back-to-back, meaning they're more than likely going to run over and not allow fans wanting to see every game to do so, due to time constraints.

There's also limited locker room space for six or eight teams each day to come in and prepare for their games. Coaches offices, weight rooms and other extra, but limited, spaces will need to be utilized.

Players shouldn't be cramped before stepping on the field in an attempt to win a championship trophy.

Maybe the thrill of playing where the Buckeyes play is an incentive to some guys. But not every high school football player in the Buckeye State is an Ohio State fan. Arguably, there's more gridiron history in Canton and Massillon.

And, if it's football legacy you're seeking, Ohio does have an NFL team in Cincinnati.

Oh, there's one in Cleveland, too? You don't say.

But in Stark County, countless professional players have played in Fawcett Stadium and many of the state's rising young prospects have set foot in Tiger Stadium. Plus, you can't get much more legendary than Paul Brown, himself. The man is Ohio football.

Columbus is slated to host the title games in 2014 and 2015, then proposals can be sent in to claim the games for 2016 and beyond. Next year, Ohio will join 12 other states that solely host their high school state championship games in the capital city. Idaho, North Carolina and South Carolina have games in the capital, as well as in other cities.

Ohio's new plan for the title games can be compared to the system in Wisconsin. Games are played at Camp Randall Stadium, home of the Wisconsin Badgers. Plus, seven games are spread out into two days with only a three hour window between the scheduled start of each game before the next one.

Most other states seem to be fine with a small attendance-to-seat ratio. Arizona plays title games in Glendale's University of Phoenix Stadium, Missouri plays at the Edward Jones Dome, home of the St. Louis Rams, in Colorado high schoolers play their championship games at the Broncos' Mile High Stadium and the dilapidated Metrodome still entertains preps in Minnesota.

Collegiate stadiums are also popular venues. Cedar Falls, Iowa, hosts games at the UNI-Dome, East Hartford is home to the University of Connecticut's Rentschler Field and the state's high school football championship, Oklahoma State University's T. Boone Pickens Stadium and Dartmouth's Memorial Field hosts games in New Hampshire.

Even Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., entertains the championships, along with Nick Saban's ego.

West Virginia, along with Montana, Rhode Island, Vermont and Oregon are the only states where the title games are played at stadiums specific to a high school. Alaska, Nevada, Virginia and New Jersey (where 19 state champions are crowned) play their games at a high school, as well as a larger stadium used by a college, or NFL team.

Ohio's decision to move the state championships to Columbus for the next two years might work. It has in the past and, judging by the implementation of other states, it will work just fine.

There will still be more than 90,000 empty seats in Ohio Stadium, but that's not a problem in Texas where 54,347 fans flocked to AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, for Saturday's Texas 5A Division I title game between Allen and Pearland.

Maybe this is just a challenge for Ohians to rise up and support their kids. We'll find out next November.

(Peaslee, a Youngstown native, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and Daily Times. He can be reached at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @thempeas.)

 
 

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