By JOE SCALZO
Vindicator sports staff
Brandon Beachum will likely spend tonight listening to the radio on his couch as his two former high schools play each other in a varsity football game for the first time.
“I’d love to go,” said Beachum, a Mooney High graduate who attended Poland High for two years, “but I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
Beachum, a sophomore running back at Penn State, tore the ACL in his knee last weekend against Indiana and won’t be able to attend the game at Fitch Falcon Stadium.
But his presence will still be felt.
This is a story about the Mooney-Poland rivalry — or lack of one, really — but it’s also about how the wounds have healed since a high-profile sophomore running back decided to transfer from one of the area’s best football programs to its very best.
Four years ago, Beachum, a 1,000-yard rusher for a Poland team that barely missed the playoffs, enrolled at Cardinal Mooney just days after his sophomore season ended.
Not surprisingly, the move made headlines — and a few enemies — and the tension spilled over a month later when Beachum sat on Mooney’s bench for a boys basketball game at Poland High School.
The game, which was won by the Cardinals in the closing seconds, brought out the worst in both teams — and their student sections — and the jawing continued well after the game ended.
The next morning, after taking the ACT at Boardman High School, a Mooney student punched a Poland student in the parking lot, putting the Poland student in the hospital with a concussion. Charges were filed, meetings took place, and a decision was made.
“After that game, we dropped Mooney [from the schedule] in a basketball game, because we were afraid of the repercussions,” said longtime Poland athletic director Myron Stallsmith, who retired last June.
Although Stallsmith didn’t say it, the decision actually stretched into other sports, as Poland adopted an unwritten policy that it wouldn’t schedule Mooney during the regular season.
It wasn’t a big change — the schools didn’t play that much anyway — and Poland and Mooney still meet in big invitationals for sports such as track and field or cross country. They also play in the postseason, with the most recent game being a Division II boys district soccer final on Halloween, won by the Cardinals.
The no-play policy didn’t affect football, of course, since the teams have never met. Mooney began playing football in 1956 and has been the area’s best program since at least the early 1970s, making the playoffs 23 times and winning six state titles.
While Poland is no slouch in football — the school has made the playoffs nine times and won the 1999 Division III state title — scheduling Mooney wasn’t an option, even as the Bulldogs played teams such as Steubenville and Ursuline during the regular season in recent years.
“We didn’t really need to play them,” said Stallsmith. “We had enough competition from the schools we were able to schedule.”
Mooney athletic director Don Bucci, who led the Cardinals to four of those state titles during his coaching career, said he’s not aware of a no-schedule policy between the teams; it just doesn’t come up.
“It’s just sort of a recognized thing; we just don’t play,” he said. “Since we didn’t play in football, it was just a matter of them not contacting us and us not contacting them.”
That doesn’t mean the rivalry has lost its juice. Like most public schools located near a parochial school, Poland has its share of sports fans that dislike Mooney.
The main reason? Many of the Cardinals’ best athletes live in Poland. Those students made up the core of Mooney’s 2003 state championship boys soccer team, with five key Cardinals having played Poland youth soccer. The 1999 state champion boys cross country team had four runners that lived in Poland. And while none of Mooney’s football players attended Poland Middle School, there are plenty who live in the district.
So even when Mooney’s athletes attend Catholic grade schools — as most of them do — some Poland fans still consider them “our kids.”
“We hear those things, but we really hear them from all the various districts,” said Bucci, who lives in Poland and has a grandson who attends Poland High. “That’s the way those communities feel even though we rarely get kids from the public schools.
“Probably 95 percent of our kids come from a parochial school like a St. Nick’s or a Holy Family or a St. Charles.”
Mooney actually prints each football player’s grade school on its roster, in part to stem some of the criticism. About two-thirds of this year’s football players came from a Catholic grade school and several others are from charter schools such as Alpha or Eagle Heights Academy, which only go through eighth grade.
And while you hear grumbling when players go from a public middle school to Mooney — Penn State linebacker Michael Zordich, for example, attended Canfield Middle School before transferring — the real furor hits when a standout athlete transfers from a public high school to a parochial one. Beachum’s decision, for instance, came less than a year after Campbell QB Derrell Johnson-Koulianos transferred to Mooney for his senior year.
“There were mixed feelings [about the transfer],” said Beachum, who played in two straight Division IV state championship games at Mooney. “There were definitely a lot of people happy about my move — mostly my supporters. And there were people who weren’t so happy — Poland fans who hated to see me go, hated to lose this player and wondering where is the program going.
“But that attitude was completely unnecessary because they did really well when I wasn’t there and the program is now on the rise. They’ve had a lot of success the past couple years.”
Poland is in the football playoffs for the third straight year and most of the animosity over Beachum’s transfer is gone, or at least buried under the surface. He was able to attend basketball games for both schools during his two years at Mooney and you can still find him playing basketball at Poland’s open gyms, which shows how much things have changed since that 2005 game.
“It was hard initially,” he said. “That basketball game was really my first time back in Poland after I left, and it was a really heated face-off between Mooney and Poland — and I was smack-dab in the middle of it.
“But once I worked my way back into it, seeing everybody again and getting back to the people I was close to, it got more comfortable. The next thing I knew, everything was cool. By my senior year, it was like I never left. Everyone was really warm again, and it was a family all over again.”
Beachum grew up in Youngstown, then attended Boardman schools for a few seasons before transferring to Poland in seventh grade, so he’s got a unique perspective on area football.
A lot of Mooney athletes lived in his neighborhood in Poland and he said players from both schools have talked about playing a football game for years.
“It’s always hyped up and anticipated and it never happens,” said Beachum.
“That’s why this week’s game is a really big deal.”
Unfortunately for Beachum, who had knee surgery Wednesday, he’ll be stuck on the couch for tonight’s game. But he’ll still be a fan.
But for which team?
“Uh, I knew this question was going to come up,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve thought about it and you know I’m rooting for Mooney, just because they’re my alma mater. But I want Poland to do well.
“I hope it’s a great game, I really do.”