The success the Blanchester High School football team has achieved this season may be deemed surprising based on the previous three years of varsity football.
But going back to their pee-wee and junior high football days, this senior class is not at all shocked with a playoff berth.
“Our 11-, 12-year-old year, we won the super bowl and we thought we were everything,” said senior Hunter Collier, a running back and linebacker for the Wildcats. “Then we went to middle school and we didn’t lose a game … well, in seventh grade we lost one but it was to an eighth grade team.”
Then came high school and varsity records of 4-6, 4-6 and 3-7. While some may have pointed fingers at others, senior quarterback Tristan Greene said the players had to look in the mirror.
“We didn’t push ourselves as hard as we could have,” he said.
Collier believes some of the players took the pee-wee and junior high success for granted. Just show up and the wins would take care of themselves.
“We had some bad times,” Collier admitted.
Exit varsity head coach Jack O’Rourke and enter new coach Brandon Sammons.
And despite a rough start — 2-3 through five games — the Wildcats closed the season with five consecutive wins and earned the school’s first football playoff berth since 2006.
“These kids were talented enough to do it the last few years and for whatever reason it didn’t work out,” said Sammons.
As the team prepares for unbeaten and No. 1 seed Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy 7 p.m. Saturday at Lindner Stadium in a Region 20 quarterfinal game, Sammons is enjoying the ride.
“There is a buzz about the community,” he said. “Not being in a smaller community where you have some boundaries to the community, I’ve never really been part of that being at a private school where you’re a little more spread out. (At CHCA) you didn’t have people from 15, 20 years back that still lived in the area that are coming out of the woodwork, which is awesome, the more the better. We want as many people at this game as possible wearing blue. I’d love to have blue wrapped around Lindner Stadium, showing them what we have in this little farm town community.”
Whether that support translates into on-field success is another matter. The Eagles have been to the playoffs seven straight years.
“They were impressive doing a lot of it,” Sammons said of his former team. “We have our hands full.”
But the Wildcats are up to the task. Following Sammons’ hiring last spring, the football program has been hard at it to get things turned around.
“During summer workouts, we had 40, 50 guys show up where in past years we had 10, 15 maybe 20,” said Greene, who has accounted for 2,639 yards and 37 touchdowns this season.
Said Collier, “The coaches did a really good job. They’re just really motivating. It’s more of a family atmosphere this year.”
A close loss against Clinton-Massie gave the Wildcats a confidence boost to start the season. That a loss would be so motivating seems odd, but Blanchester had scored just 21 points in the previous nine meetings in the Cider Keg series.
“I think it definitely gave them confidence that they were capable and that’s what we preached to them all summer long,” said Sammons. “You guys can compete with Massie. You can play with anybody on the schedule. It’s just a matter of what you guys do when you show up.”
The season, though, turned a bit sour after a couple of losses to Goshen and New Richmond.
“We didn’t live up to the expectations we set for ourselves,” Collier said of the two mid-season defeats.
The Wildcats were 2-3 and playoffs seemed like just another unreachable goal.
Maybe for everyone but Sammons and the ’Cats.
“I’m sure there were plenty of people outside the four walls of our locker room, that’s why it was us against the world,” he said. “The first five games were the tougher portion of our schedule. We figured if we could get out 2-3 … 3-2 would be great. We weren’t worried. We knew we had five games in front of us that were all winnable and at 7-3 we would have a chance to get in (to the playoffs).”
Clermont Northeastern, Batavia, Williamsburg and Bethel-Tate went up and down in order, giving Blanchester the SBAAC National Division championship.
“We wanted to win league first before we moved on to the playoffs,” said Greene. “That’s what I wanted to do, my senior year win league.”
Then came a regular season finale triumph over Amelia and suddenly the Wildcats were watching the scoreboard. Things fell in place and the school’s playoff drought was over.
“It was good for these guys to have to fight a little bit (to get in),” Sammons said. “Now, we’re here. We don’t care if we’re the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 (seed). We’re in. These guys are getting a taste of what playoff football is about. It’s the mentality. There’s a little bit of an extra sense of pressure this time of year. It’s against better competition, the stakes are higher, the lights are a little brighter, at least they seem like it.”
CHCA will provide a steep hill for Blanchester to climb in its bid to keep the season alive.
“Their linebackers are good, they’re fast, they’re big,” said Greene. “Everyone’s going to have to believe in each other and go as hard as they can each play.”