Canfield, South Range, JFK rally around their state title-game teams
As three local teams fire up to play the games of their lives, community support is providing the lifeblood to carry them to Canton for games on Friday and Saturday.
Canfield and South Range high schools in Mahoning County and Warren John F. Kennedy all are headed to state championship contests. All week, fans inside and out of the schools have been busy with signs, banners and slogans.
This week’s games mark the third time in the 51-year history of the Ohio High School Athletic Association football tournament the state finals will include three teams from the Mahoning Valley.
Carrying the community’s best wishes on their backs, the Cardinals are to play in their first state championship since 2005, at 3 p.m. Friday against Bloom-Carroll. The Cardinals lost to Toledo Central Catholic 31-29 during their last trip to the state championship.
A crowd will converge in the parking lot of the high school at 10:30 a.m. Friday, ready to celebrate the trip to Canton as the team seeks the school’s first state championship.
During Friday’s game the colors red and black will be on full display thanks to the efforts of about 30 adult members of the Canfield Gridiron Club who spent Monday night creating signs during the school’s spirit week to support the Cardinals team and cheerleaders.
The gridiron club has purchased 300 shirts, all of which have been grabbed up by community members.
A T-shirt pickup was scheduled Wednesday night.
Earlier Wednesday, teachers and students also adorned themselves in all black for black out day, with Tuesday before being designated for a red out day.
Hanging in the halls of Canfield High School is a banner made by the cheerleaders that reads, ‘Cards to State’ and if you’re downtown you’ll notice banners on the green.
The support can be felt all around the community. Mayor Don Dragish said win or lose, Canfield will always rally behind its team.
“This is great for the area. We’ve always had great football players,” Dragish said. “The way the town has gotten behind the Cardinals shows the support of the school community, parents and coaching staff that helped get these kids to this level and play at state.”
“Just play like every other game” is the message Dragish wants the team to hear.
“It’s for all the marbles,” he said. “But they’ve played hard and tough, so stick to the plan, and let’s bring it home for Canfield.”
Ahead of her son’s matchup against Ironton, Monica Simmons, mother of senior defensive back Joey Plunkett, has a few simple words for him: “You do you.”
It’s all that needs to be said. Simmons knows her son, and this team has waited for this moment since going undefeated as first-graders playing for the Little Raiders.
As the team’s first state championship appearance looms, the Beaver Township population won’t be too far behind.
“The community has always been a huge support and all about football whether it’s before or after games,” Monica Simmons said. “It’s almost every day there’s some type of love or support being shown for the team.”
Sharing in a sense of Raiders pride, Beaver Township Trustee Pamela Simmons wants to remind the players to enjoy every single second.
“They’ve done the homework, and they play as a team. This is something they’ll talk about for the rest of their lives. It’s for the team, not just one player,” she said.
Not lost on her is the impact of 28-year head coach Dan Yeagley. She described him as a mentor for the players.
“That man puts everything he has into encouraging those kids — the students just respond to him,” Simmons said.
In preparation for Friday’s game, school will be closed Friday as the community prepares for a celebration. The festivities start with a celebration 6:30 tonight in the South Range High School gymnasium. The athletic boosters also will be hosting a breakfast for the team.
With classes canceled, a team send-off will follow 7 a.m. Friday from the school parking lot, with two spirit buses filled with middle and high school students taking off shortly after at 8 a.m.
Four years after watching his older brother hoist the state championship trophy, Thomas Valent had a shot to win one of his own in 2020. The Eagles couldn’t get it done that day, losing to a strong New Bremen team.
After beating Newark Catholic on Saturday in the state semifinals, JFK players came together and said: “This is our shot at redemption,” according to school President Joseph Kenneally.
Since the team’s 31-0 loss in their last state championship appearance, that Dec. 3 date has lived in infamy for the Eagles. Every day they see it written on a whiteboard in the weight room.
On Saturday, when the lights shine on Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium at 3 p.m., this group, many of whom have played together since kindergarten, have the chance for redemption — not just for the team, but for the army of community members in the stands.
“Their motto from day one is ‘Play for the K’ — we live that motto, they’ve lived that motto since they were kids, as second and third generations. It’s more important than the jersey,” Kenneally said.
As a small Division VII school with about 600 kids in kindergarten to 12th grade, Kenneally said the older kids are always near the younger generations as mentors, saying they’re a family of schools built around a singular communal identity.
“These kids have worked so hard over the last weeks to see them have all their dreams come to fruition in this game. It’s big for them and the city,” he said.
The team’s send-off to Canton will be 1 p.m. Friday and junior high students will have a bus take them to the game.