A game that meant nothing at the time means quite a bit now for the Canton-bound Clinton-Massie Falcons.
In need of a week two game in 2015 thanks to Waynesville’s decision to drop the Falcons from the schedule, Clinton-Massie was in a bind.
The Falcons found an opponent. A state-caliber foe who would compensate Massie to travel on the road to play them.
That team was Steubenville. Clinton-Massie’s opponent in Saturday’s state championship game.
After the game, McSurley was both pleased with how his team competed and aware that the outcome would have little impact on potential playoff seeding.
“This game doesn’t mean anything,” McSurley said at the time. “We’re going to look and see how we can improve as a team and get better. But I’m pleased with the effort my kids gave. It was just a hell of a ballgame.”
Two years later, the importance of the experience cannot be overstated.
“That game two years ago, looking back, was probably big for us to be able to drive all that way and go toe to toe with them,” McSurley said.
A steamy night in eastern Ohio
As is often the case on Sept. 5, it was a warm and humid evening. Thunderstorms brought games in Clinton County to a halt.
Those storms would have no impact on the Falcons. Clinton-Massie had made the 217-mile journey to Steubenville, an eastern Ohio city just 26 miles north of Wheeling, West Virginia.
Steubenville is famously known as the birthplace of Dean Martin. In recent years, it is more infamously known for the rape case that became nationwide news.
The city is also known for its football. Steubenville’s Big Red have been state powers for much of their 117 years of existence. Over those 12 decades, 20 Big Red teams have finished undefeated. The 2017 squad can make it 21 with a win on Saturday.
In 2015, the Big Red were a talented bunch. Many assumed they would roll to a state title after defeating Clinton-Massie in week two. They would roll, but only to the title game. Bishop Hartley would beat them 31-28 in the Horseshoe in Columbus to take the title.
Division I college prospects were numerous for the Big Red. They would have been a tough team to play anywhere.
The Falcons had to face them in “Death Valley.”
Death Valley is the name given to Reno Saccoccia Field at Harding Stadium. Nearly 10,000 fans fill the stadium on Friday nights. A fire-breathing horse sits atop the scoreboard, modeled after the original “Big Red,” Man o’ War. A Civil War-era graveyard is located just a few feet behind the visiting bleachers.
It is one of the toughest places to play in high school football.
“I go out with the first group to warm up, and seeing all the fans and the intensity and how loud everything was already, it’s just something that stays with you your whole life,” said Weston Trampler, then a sophomore preparing to start his first varsity game.
Not a fond memory
Starting with the cross-state journey on a school bus, it was shaping up to be quite the memorable adventure for the Falcons.
Not all of those memories are pleasant.
“It was just a bad experience,” Trey Uetrecht said. “The three-hour drive on the school bus was awful. The locker room was heated … awful. The game was hot and we were like the walking wounded after.”
In the state semifinal against John Glenn, Luke Richardson was Superman. Two years ago, making his second varsity start against the Big Red, he was Clark Kent.
“That was the most brutal game I’ve ever played in,” Richardson said. “That was my second varsity game ever. The trip there was miserable. Going into that stadium was an unreal atmosphere.
“I was like, ‘I sure hope every game is not going to be like this.’”
Battered and bruised
What followed was two hours of helmet-crackling and pad popping as two of the most physical teams in the state went toe-to-toe.
Trampler, making his first start, had a pretty challenging assignment.
“Being a sophomore, I hadn’t even started in a varsity game yet,” Trampler said. “I started at left tight end on Hunter’s (Fentress) blindside, going against a senior defensive end.”
The final score – 37-18 Steubenville – doesn’t indicate how close the game was. Fentress’ two-yard run combined with a Davey Tunon two-point conversion tied the game at 18 with 4:18 left in the third.
However, Steubenville would score the final 19 points of the game. Dmitri Collaros – younger brother of former UC quarterback Zach – threw two touchdown passes in the final 14 minutes of the game.
Clinton-Massie had four drives that ended in Steubenville territory without scoring points. This included a drive that was stopped at the 1, and a missed field goal from the 17 after a Tunon touchdown was taken off the board due to a holding call.
The physical showdown took its toll on many players, including Richardson.
“After the game, I had to be carried out of the locker room,” Richardson said. “I was crying. My whole body was just done.”
An important game
What appeared to be just an opportunity to play a great opponent has become a chance for Clinton-Massie to exact some revenge.
The coaches and players who experienced Death Valley will never forget that night.
“It’s something I will always remember,” Trampler said. “I still think about that constantly. Every game I go to, there is no game I’ve ever played in that was as intense as that one.”
After defeating Wyoming in the Region 16 championship game, McSurley pointed to the showdown against the Big Red as being instrumental in the development of the current senior class.
“There is no fear,” McSurley said. “They just go out and play as hard as they can, and it’s all about executing.”
McSurley said that the experience was just as important for his coaches. He believes they won’t be in awe of the Big Red.
“We’ll probably make some changes because we’ve played Steubenville before,” McSurley said. “It’s really fortunate for us, because if we had never played these guys, as a coaching staff, we really wouldn’t know what to expect.”
For the seniors who played that night, it is only fitting that their high school careers end against Steubenville, with a chance to rewrite the ending.
“It’s weird how we schedule them out of the blue,” Uetrecht said. “Then two years later we have a chance for revenge on a neutral site.”
It hasn’t been the only big game these seniors have played, but it was the first of many. The last, biggest game they will play will kick-off at 3 p.m. Saturday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
“Our senior group has played in such big, big games,” McSurley said. “By going over to Steubenville and taking on the challenge like we did, they know the level we have to play at to win a state title.”
Matt Sexton covers high school sports for the News Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bymattsexton