Updated: Sep 6, 2021
2021 marks the 50-year anniversary of Warren G. Harding's 1971 Associated Press Poll state championship team. While the AP continues to award state titles to their top team, '71 was special as it was the last poll title awarded before the Ohio High School Athletic Association implemented their original playoff system in 1972. The Mahoning Valley's presence in the high school football world was extremely strong back then as the first three OHSAA Class AAA (today's "Division I" equivalent) playoff state championships were won by Warren Western Reserve in 1972, Youngstown Cardinal Mooney in '73, and Harding in '74.
Then known as the Panthers, Harding set the area's bar for success high back in '71 when they outscored their ten opponents 322 to 39. That included shutout victories over Cleveland John Adams (44-0), Cincinnati Aiken (41-0), Alliance (27-0), Cincinnati Taft (60-0), and Niles (27-0). This week, the hands of time will be turned back at Mollenkopf Stadium as for the tenth consecutive season, Harding will have their annual "throwback game." What better way to honor the '71 champs than for this year's Harding squad to rock the Panthers' old jerseys with their red, white, and black colors!
As the city of Warren prepares for a highly anticipated reunion of the '71 Panthers, Harding enters week 4 with a very deceptive record of 1-2. There's several plays in both the Medina and Hudson games that the they would love to have back. This past Friday in particular was a series of trial and error moments in the first half that left the boys in black & gold down to Hudson 17-0 with 1:43 remaining in the first half. In the third quarter, Harding started to get things going as Dom "Mr. Orangeman" Foster raced 50 yards for a touchdown at the 2:14 mark of the period. It was the sixth touchdown of the season for the Syracuse commit. Harding inched even closer with 6:52 remaining in the game when Jake Daugherty connected on a 21-yard field goal. However, despite some big plays down the stretch, they couldn't move the needle any further as their comeback efforts fell short in Hudson.
While the loss was a hard pill to swallow, there are plenty of positives to take into week 4. With Harding staring in the eye of a potential blowout defeat in Hudson, their second half adjustments held the Explorers and their high-paced no-huddle offense scoreless and made things very interesting late. As a team, Harding has compiled 584 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 98 carries in their first three games. That includes Foster's 28 carries for 201 yards and three touchdowns while classmate Brysen Powell has 134 rushing yards and one touchdown on 38 carries. Foster and junior Dalys Jett have combined for 261 passing yards and two touchdowns while senior Tyirq Ivory is averaging 10.9 yards every time he touches the ball (five catches and four rushes). Sophomore kicker Jake Daugherty has also been a reliable option as he's accounted for 11 of Harding's 79 points. They need to be clicking on all cylinders this week as they'll face an old foe with a new look, but same high standards.
The key to a successful high school football program is developing your community's talent at a young age. Sometimes, if a coaching staff knows that a certain group of kids will be special, they'll "schedule up" in terms of the level of competition more than they would in most years. That said, Massillon Washington, is currently the nation's third all-time winningest program with 911 victories under their belt. Despite losing an extremely talented class to graduation, head coach Nate Moore didn't go any lighter on the scheduling as the reigning Division II state runner-up opened up their 2021 regular season with the 2020 Division I state runner-up in Pickerington Central. Despite the Tigers' 26-7 week 1 loss, it proved to be a valuable part of their growth as they've outscored their last two opponents by a combined score of 75-22.
Then again, Moore's coaching resume doesn't suggest that he's going to be intimidated by elite competition. He began his career on the sidelines in 2010 at Minster, who competes in the legendary Midwest Athletic Conference. The MAC, features small school powerhouse programs such as Maria Stein Marion Local (11 state titles), Coldwater (6 state titles), Versailles (6 state titles), St. Henry (6 state titles), Delphos St. John's (6 state titles), etc. All together, the current MAC schools have combined for 40 state crowns in football, which include Minster's three and one apiece for both Anna and Fort Recovery.
In 2013, Moore began a two-year stint as the head coach of Cincinnati La Salle, who competes in the Greater Catholic League with the Queen City's parochial school powerhouses Archbishop Moeller (9 state titles), St. Xavier (4 state titles), and Elder (two state titles). In Moore's final season at LaSalle in 2014, they went 14-1 (2-1 in the GCL) en route to the school's first ever state crown in football. Since then, the Lancers also added state championships in 2015, 2016, and 2019.
Moore's mentality and experience is a perfect fit in Massillon as they look to add to their 24 state titles and win their first in the playoff era. The Tigers replaced their departing speed in the '21 class with even more speed in athlete Austin Brawley. If you recall, he was on my "25 Opposing Players To Watch List" for Harding this year. In fact, he was one of my bold predictions as I based it on his potential moreso than his actual accomplishments on the football field. To date, it seems as if my crystal ball showed me a great visual of his future as Brawley is off to a super fast start this season. He's accumulated 238 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, a 79-yard punt return against Canton Glenoak and a 39-yard interception return this past Friday vs. Reynoldburg. While he's yet to catch a touchdown pass tis season, it should be noted that he averaged 39.0 yards per catch vs. Harding last season, so the Raiders will need to keep an eye on him at all times.
Another member of my preseason watch list is running back Willtrell Hartson, who is more than living up to his huge expectations in Tiger Town as he leads them with 449 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns on 63 carries. That's music to the ears of the coaching staffs at both Boston College and Temple as they've both already extended offers to the junior tailback. Quarterback Darius McElroy comes into week 4 with 245 total yards and two touchdowns and the Raiders will also have to keep an eye on Camden Beasley, a versatile athlete who recently showcased his big playmaking ability with an 81-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Reynoldsburg.
Defensively, Beasley is also the leader for the Tigers in tackles (15 solo, 8 assists) and is tied with fellow linebacker Kalix Collins and defensive lineman Marcus Moore at the top with 1.0 sacks thus far. Moore also leads the Tigers with 4.5 tackles for a loss. Brawley is very active at free safety as he has compiled 13.0 tackles (11 solo, 4 assists), 1.5 tackles for a loss, 1 fumble recovery, and the aforementioned interception return for a touchdown. While he has yet to have a breakout performance, I'm reminding everyone to keep close tabs on Freddie Lenix Jr., who was also on my preseason watch list. The reigning Austintown Region 100 meter dash champion who has a personal record time of 10.93, the junior has registered 7 solo tackles for Massillon thus far.
On a personal note, I wasn't even thought of yet in the 70's as I wasn't born until 1983. However, I've grown to understand the impact that the old blue collar environments had in cities like Warren and Massillon. Hard working parents raised hard working kids, and it showed on the football field. In fact, many of the high school football powerhouses from back in the day were located in places like Warren, Massillon, Canton, Fostoria, Niles, and Steubenville where the economy was flourishing in the old days. Luckily, despite the overall decline in the economy and atmospere, Harding and Massillon are two schools from that group that remain relevant in football as they've both been able to hang on to the roots of what originally made their programs great in the first place. In that sense, Friday's game will be a reason for both of our communities to celebrate. To date, Harding has an overall record of 25-57-3 against Massillon. Hopefully, Harding will be able to have another rare celebration after the game.