The old Rayen School on the city’s North Side is now a parking lot. A parking lot that was filled quickly on Saturday afternoon.
For a football game.
A standing room only crowd of 5,000 packed the bleachers in re-built Rayen Stadium at Jack Antonucci Field, hundreds more stood on a spacious observation deck, while neighbors lined the fence around the end zones for a glimpse at the first football game on the corner of Benita and Ohio Avenues in 32 years.
“This complex is second to none,” East High coach Jim Vivo said. “It was a great day for our city schools and especially a great day for our kids to have a place to play.”
Superintendent Connie Hathorn threw the first ceremonial pass, Derrick Tensley scored the first East touchdown, Ursuline won the first game.
The Irish rallied from an 18-0 halftime deficit and used their power on the ground for the 41-24 victory — a season-opening win for new head coach Larry Kempe.
“We were frustrated a little bit, but we weren’t really worried about it because we know we did what coach Kempe taught us and we overcame it,” running back Tramain Thigpen said.
The 5-9, 180-pound senior ran for three second-half touchdowns and tallied 96 yards on the ground. Ursuline finished with 243 rushing yards.
Tensley ran for a 50-yard score in the final minute of the first quarter and James Merchant caught a pair of TD passes from Jamir Humphrey in the second that built East’s big early lead.
Yet, Thigpen wasn’t worried. He knew the keys to a strong second half.
“Keep our heads up, play how we were taught and stay focused,” he said. “I told them coming out, ‘The comeback is where it is.’ We’re a second-half team.”
Irish QB Chris Durkin threw a pair of first-half interceptions (picked off by Humphrey and Deon Davis) and Ursuline had two long touchdown runs negated by holding penalties.
“What’s killing us is us,” Kempe said.
The game-changing spark for the Irish was an 86-yard punt return for a score by Jermaine Williams midway through the third quarter for their first points.
“I just got the motive,” said Williams, who had 86 rushing yards and another TD in the fourth. “They tried to strip me and I just broke off that. It was a great spark and we kept it up.”
Durkin didn’t attempt a pass in the second half and finished with 57 rushing yards on 12 carries. He entered with negative yardage and had a 61-yard TD run to put Ursuline up 34-18 with 4:36 left.
“We came out guns a-blazing and refused to lose,” Durkin said. “Something stuck with the coaches and they put their trust in me.”
Williams and John Martynyszyn each recovered Panther fumbles. Sha’Haun Williams blocked a punt to set up Ursuline’s third score.
Tensley had a 90-yard kickoff return TD and Humphrey completed seven passes for 128 yards with 61 on the ground.
“If the game was a half we would’ve won it,” Vivo said. “That’s the kind of thing that in the process of building a program it takes a long time.”