Superb coaching and great athletes. To the casual fan, those are the main components to a solid high school football program, but there is a "secret sauce" that is vital to the recipe of success that's often forgotten about... Community. It takes a village to raise a child and the collective effort that a community puts forth towards bringing up their youth up has a huge effect on whether or not their kids will grow up to be coachable, mentally tough, hard workers, etc. Hence, the reason why certain high schools consistently put out great products and while some are more prone to attract/lose their talent.
The best example of a strong "village" in the Buckeye State would be Marion Local, a small high school in Maria Stein, Ohio that has played in nine consecutive state championship games, winning seven (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019) to go along with the four that they won in 2000, 2001,2006, and 2007. Their 11 state championships in football is tied with Cleveland St. Ignatius for the most in Ohio history. As impressive as the aforementioned feat is, it's even more remarkable when you consider that little league football is not offered in Maria Stein, a farming community where kids are developed at home before they even step onto the football field. By the time that happens though, their youth is equipped with the discipline and physical tools to overwhelm their opposition.
Every successful football "community" has their own unique method for breeding success. In the old days, the former steel mill towns like Warren, Massillon, Canton, Steubenville, Niles (the Dragons used to be very good back in the day), etc. had blue collar atmospheres that constantly bred tough, hard-nosed kids that resulted in great football. This was enhanced by the presence of strong adult leadership, community centers, summer programs, and many other aspects that instilled a high level of pride in the city. Back then, Warren G. Harding, as well as Warren Western Reserve in their heyday, played anybody, anywhere, any time on the gridiron and when they did, they brought the whole city with them.
While the love of the game of football is always present in Warren, many of the aspects that pushed the city towards greatness don't exist anymore. No, that doesn't suggest that the Raiders aren't playing good football anymore as four of current head coach Steve Arnold's five career playoff appearances have come over the last five years (2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019; his first in 2012). However, there's always room for improvement off the field that can better prepare our youth to produce even better results on the field. Last year, Harding's season was halted 55-0 to Massillon, a city that is literally the same size as Warren, but back among the elite in the entire state. The loss left a bitter taste in the mouths of a talented and now experienced group of players that will take the field this Saturday vs. Cleveland Benedictine.
Offensively, the Raiders will be led on the field by quarterback Elijah Taylor, who enters his senior year as Harding's all-time leader in passing yards (3,124) while his 27 career touchdown passes are just one shy of current Las Vegas Raider Lynn Bowden's school record. Last year, Taylor's arm allowed then-senior Ty Artis to have one of the best statistical years in Harding history as he finished with 28 catches for 752 yards and 8 touchdowns. With Artis is now on the football roster at Wheeling University, Taylor will look for breakout years from seniors DeAveion "Nutty" Burgess and MarKwuan Brown as well as juniors Dom Foster and Curtiss Dorsey. He'll be joined in the offensive backfield by senior running backs Elizah Smith and Emari Burgess. Defensively, Emarion Perkins and Jabari Felton combined for 39.0 tackles for a loss and 10.0 sacks in 2019. The other returning leaders include Chester Adams (68 tackles, 6 TFLs, 1 sack, and 1 interception in 2019), Mar'Rall Brown (24 tackles and 4.5 TFLs in 2019), Da'mari Freeman (34 tackles & 1 TFL in 2019) and Emari Burgess (19 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, and 1 interception).
As for this season, Harding has already been on a roller coaster ride trying to find a week 1 opponent. First, the Raiders were scheduled to host longtime rival Canton McKinley, who had to cancel due to their obligations to the Federal League. Next, as I wrote in my original week 1 preview article, Harding was set to travel routes 422 west and 271 north to Cleveland Heights, but at the last minute, their superintendent pulled the plug on that meeting, Finally, we THINK, the Raiders are set to host Northeastern Ohio powerhouse Cleveland Benedictine this Saturday. Of course, the term "powerhouse" may have different meanings to different people. However, under any scenario, Benedictine fits the description. They rank sixth in OHSAA history with seven state playoff championships in football (1973, 1980, 1981, 1996, 2003, 2004, 2014), which doesn't include their AP Poll state championship in 1957. In fact, they're the only football program in Ohio to win at least one state title in every decade since the OHSAA implemented its playoff system in 1972. The 16 NFL players that they've produced ranks sixth in Ohio history (behind Canton McKinley, Cleveland Glenville, Massillon, Harding, and Columbus East) and they're tied for third in Ohio for active NFL players. They include Najee Goode (Jacksonville Jaguars), Jerome Baker (Miami Dolphins) and Justin Layne (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Now, the Bengals enter the 2020 season with a loaded group that's ready to continue its emergence under second-year head coach and Najee's uncle Jarritt Goode. A 1995 alum of Benedictine, Jarritt will have planty of experience under center in senior quarterback Ronnie Schultz, who threw for 2,354 yards and 28 touchdowns in his forst year as a starter in 2019. Speaking of the "center," the snaps will be handled by Robert Morris commit Luke Beltavski. He selected the Colonials over the likes of the University of Akron, who also have offers extended to wide receiver/safety Chris Gales and linebacker Derell Bendingfield Jr., who also holds an offer from Cincinnati. The Bengals' defensive front will be headlined by Thomas Jolly, who is committed to Division II juggarnaught Grand Valley State. Meanwhile, the kicking duties will be handled by senior Ivan Shuran, who has offers from both Army and Navy.
As the world is eager to return to a state of normalcy amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Ohio is among the few states stepping up to lead the charge in getting back to organized sports. The Ohio High School Athletic Association’s plan for a six-game regular season was recently given the green light by Gov. Mike DeWine and as a result of the sudden change, Harding’s original opponent, Canton McKinley, who as mentioned earlier, was forced to drop the Raiders from their schedule in order to fulfill their obligations to the Federal League and fit Massillon into their season finale. While the Bulldogs are one of Raiders’ oldest rivals, there is plenty of recent history with Cleveland Heights, who used to compete against the Harding every year while they were both in the Lake Erie League, but even that match-up never came to fruition. Now, after a 21-year hiatus, Harding and Benedictine will meet on the football field. The 1999 match-up is remembered as then-sophomore Maurice Clarett's debut as a Raider as he finished with for 19 carries for 156 yards and 3 touchdowns (46, 20, 23, 5) while adding another score on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Luke Stuckey in Harding's 36-13 season-opening victory. On Saturday, two groups of kids, who were yet to be even thought of back in 1999, will take their turns in opening up their seasons at Mollenkopf Stadium.
Good luck Raiders!