By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- Last Oct. 1, on a Friday night in Wintersville, Wilson High football coach Brian Marrow stood on the sideline trying not to let the latest edition to a 26-game losing streak overwhelm his team. Or him.
The Redmen, trailing Indian Creek 28-20 with a few minutes left, had a chance to win for the first time since the 2001 season. They had the ball and needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie. A tough task, sure, but it was possible.
Marrow, a first-year coach, could taste it.
Then, just like that, he couldn't. The drive stalled. Indian Creek ran out the clock. Another game, another loss.
Then something funny happened. He looked at his team and they were ... smiling. They were having fun. One of his guys even stood up and yelled, "I haven't felt this good in ... I don't know when!"
And Marrow thought, "What in the world is going on?"
"I had to think about it for a minute," said Marrow, a former all-City receiver on South High's undefeated 1979 team. "I'm not used to all this losing. But it was nice to see.
"I think that was the turning point."
Taking small steps
It takes perspective, of course. Over the past few years, Wilson was lucky to still be in the game by the end of the first quarter, much less the fourth. They weren't winning, but they were taking baby steps.
And when the Redmen beat Canton Timken in Week Eight, they started to walk.
"The kids were finally competitive last year," Marrow said. "The main thing we needed was an attitude change."
Over the past 50 years, Wilson has had the worst football program in the tri-county area.
The Redmen haven't won a City Series championship since 1951 when they were called the Presidents and they shared the title with South and East.
They haven't won an outright City Series title since 1946.
They've never been to the playoffs, they haven't had a winning season since 1993 (when a teachers strike wiped out three games) and they've gone through four other coaches since longtime coach John Kopp stepped down after the 1989 season.
"When I was thinking about taking the job, I heard a lot of horror stories," Marrow said. "There were a lot of people telling me not to take it. But I prayed about it and I just felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.
"I want to give these kids hope."
See, that's what this story is really about. Hope.
Barring any setbacks, students at Wilson and Rayen will begin attending East High School in the fall of 2007. The new $26 million school, which is being built at the corner of Parker Street and Bennington Avenue, will hold 1,200 students.
Wilson and Rayen will become middle schools. Chaney High School, which is undergoing a $23 million renovation and expansion project, will remain.
It's all part of a six-year, $200 million schools improvement plan that includes six new buildings and renovations and additions to 10 others.
For much of this century, Youngstown had six high schools. But as the city's economy went south, and more people moved to the suburbs, the school district shrank.
North was the first to close, in 1980, and South and East followed. After the consolidation, East will likely be a mid-sized Division I school in most sports, with Chaney being a large Division II school in football and a Division I school in everything else.
"As a district, the building initiative is a big shot in the arm for us," said Chaney football coach Ron Berdis, now entering his 19th year. "Anytime you can renovate your existing building -- which we were in dire need of -- that bodes well for the system. I've been at Chaney all my life and to see it unfold in front of us, it's exciting."
The building initiative will help the schools academically -- better classrooms, better technology, better atmosphere -- but many hope it also helps the schools' athletic programs.
With new gyms, new weight rooms and better overall facilities, the district will have a chance to improve its current sports and add new ones such as cross country, tennis and golf.
"We're trying to build long-term," district superintendent Dr. Wendy Webb said. "For instance, our softball programs aren't very strong. Well, it stands to reason that if we're playing against schools with kids who have played all their lives, and our kids haven't, that's going to make a difference.
"We want students to at least have a fair chance to compete. We want them to grow and get better at every level."
Studies show that athletes tend to perform better academically than nonathletes. There are a variety of reasons for this -- athletes are often more driven, more disciplined and have an incentive for keeping their grades up -- and Webb is hoping athletic success and academic success will go hand-in-hand.
"It's not enough for our students to just perform well athletically in college," Webb said. "We want them to perform well academically."
Keeping kids in Youngstown
Part of the challenge is simply keeping the students in the school district. Over the past 10 years, Southsiders such as Maurice Clarett (Fitch, Warren Harding), Brad Smith (Chaney), Anthony Floyd (Chaney), Shaun Lane (Hubbard) and Delbert Ferguson (Ursuline, Warren Harding) have left Wilson's district and found success elsewhere.
All went on to play Division I college football. Two of them (Clarett, Floyd) are in the NFL and Smith will likely follow next year.
"When I came here three years ago, my No. 1 goal was to keep the kids in the city," Rayen football coach Brian Shaner said. "They've got numerous choices and we wanted to show them that we've got a quality program and a quality coaching staff and we're doing exactly what everyone else does."
Youngstown City School District has open enrollment, meaning students can choose what high school they want to attend. But Shaner's biggest problem wasn't losing kids to Chaney or Wilson.
"Mainly it's the parochial schools," he said. "When I first came to Youngstown, the kids went to Ursuline or Mooney. We wanted to show them they could get a good education and a college scholarship if they stayed here."
The other thing Shaner tried to do was improve the program's finances. Chaney has an advantage with its Gridiron Club, which helps supply money for things such as pregame meals and training equipment.
"We had some teachers really step up for us," Shaner said. "These kids never knew what it was like to get fed during two-a-days. Now they get a pre-game meal every week.
"There's no doubt that we have the talent. And I think that if we had the financing and the facilities of a Massillon, a Warren Harding or even a Fitch ... we'd be a powerhouse like those programs."
Shaner's improvements began paying dividends last season as the Tigers started the season 4-1 and finished 5-5. Most surprising, the Tigers led only one game at halftime last year, yet were competitive in nearly every game.
"In the past, we would have cashed it in," Shaner said. "Not now."
Chaney's program is still far ahead of Rayen and Wilson. The Cowboys have the advantage of merely needing to maintain their tradition rather than building it.
Berdis, a Chaney graduate, was an assistant coach with the Cowboys for several years before taking over as head coach in 1987. Chaney also has active alumni such as Mike Zordich, Keilen Dykes, Smith and Floyd who return to the school and give back.
"When kids come here, they buy into our tradition," said Berdis, who expects to coach at least five more years. "It's a real easy sell for me. They don't have to look at our staff and wonder where I've been or where I'm going to be.
"This is a labor of love for me and maybe that makes me more believable. I think that's certainly a big part of it."
Focusing on the present
Neither Shaner nor Marrow is sure what's going to happen in two years and both seem too absorbed in this season to look that far ahead.
One change could be the construction of a central stadium for the two high schools and the two parochial schools. The idea, conceived by Chaney's Zordich and local architect Ray Jaminet, is still in the planning stages, but both seem committed.
The proposed stadium would cost $5.5 million -- funded by private donations -- and would be built next to the new convocation center downtown.
"I love the idea," Shaner said. "We play eight games away from YSU, which means eight games against their officiating. Not to say the officiating is bad on the road, but you've got to play good, solid football every week on the road, which is a lot harder than decent football at home."
Right now, the five high schools pay YSU $2,500 per game to rent Stambaugh Stadium.
Rayen and Wilson each have one home game and Chaney has three this season. That leaves a brutal schedule filled with road games and a paltry bottom line on the athletic budget.
And because the schools aren't in a big football conference -- the schools compete in the Steel Valley Conference in everything but football -- they pretty much have to schedule games on other teams' terms.
"It's tough to be on the road all the time," Marrow said. "Last year, it seemed like we were driving down by the [Ohio] River every week. Our schedule is still brutal, but at least there's not as much travel."
Unlike when Warren Western Reserve and Warren Harding consolidated in 1990, the Wilson-Rayen consolidation seems to be going smoothly.
The biggest fight has been over East's nickname. East High alumni wanted to keep the Golden Bear as a mascot, along with the school colors of blue and gold.
But the school's future students chose Panthers, along with the colors silver and light blue.
Some people aren't thrilled with the choice -- someone even floated the name WRENS for Wilson, Rayen, East, North and South -- but it became official in late July.
The cooperation has been encouraging, but the fact remains: Every time a school closes, the community loses something.
"I have a feeling that Wilson's going to have the same scenario as South, where it becomes sort of a forgotten entity," Berdis said. "I think there's a little more hope with Rayen kids because I think the majority of them will go to East. I think a lot of the Wilson kids will end up at Chaney."
Work to be done
While Rayen fans are hoping for a breakout football season this year, Wilson still has work to do. The Redmen were competitive last year, but they're still 1-29 over the past three years.
Marrow doesn't have a large coaching staff or a big budget, meaning he's part football coach, part motivational speaker, part equipment manager, athletic trainer, therapist, baby sitter, father figure, academic adviser, custodian ... well, you get the point.
"It's tough," Marrow said. "We're not as fortunate as other schools, but there's nothing you can do about that. You've just got to take the punches and roll with it."
Wilson senior linebacker Thomas Mulligan has taken plenty of punches the past three years. His only victory came last year against Canton Timken, which went 1-9. Given that history, you'd think he'd be pessimistic.
And you'd be wrong.
"Coach Marrow has had a great effect on this team," said Mulligan, who also plays center. "Our other coach worked us too hard and we'd be tired by the time the season started. Now we're competitive the whole game. He's got us believing in this team."
A change in numbers
Marrow also has his numbers up in the 45-50 range, a far cry from the 25-30 who went out just a few years ago.
"That's made a huge difference," said junior Rashad Robinson. "Last year, everybody had to play both ways. Now we have more people and we can substitute."
Like Rayen, Wilson has the athletes to compete. It's just a matter of getting them to go out and stay eligible. When asked why more of his classmates don't play sports, Mulligan said. "They're lazy."
"Or they'll say, 'I don't want to play on a losing team,'" added Robinson. "And I'm like, 'Well, if you go out, we wouldn't be losing.'"
Still, there's hope. Which brings us back to the Indian Creek game last year. After the game ended, and the players went through the postgame handshakes, the Redmen started walking back toward the locker room.
But the Indian Creek fans stayed.
"They were waiting for us," Marrow said. "And they gave us a standing ovation on the field. The kids were beaming. It felt so great.
"We've still got a long way to go, but I want them to have that feeling after every game. And after we beat Timken, it was just one game, but you could see their confidence was a little higher."
Marrow paused, then continued.
"It's funny," he said. "Even though I'm not used to losing, to see the guys lose and still have a good feeling, it gives us something to build on.
"I think we will."