State finals back in Columbus

A general view of the Ohio Stadium form the north outside in Columbus.

Marcus Hartman

Ever since the Ohio High School Athletic Association decided in July of 2010 to return the State Football Finals to Columbus for a two-year run, many have debated about whether it is the right move. We begin to find out on Thursday.

When Athens and Toledo Central Catholic take the field for the Division III final, it will be the first state championship game at Ohio Stadium since 1989. The Division IV, VI and II finals take place on Friday with Division VII, I and V on Saturday.

"I think it is something the kids have talked about throughout our playoff run," said Toledo Central Catholic head coach Greg Dempsey of playing at Ohio State. "What high school kid doesn’t dream of playing in that stadium? To be the first game of the weekend after the long break is a pretty special thing. Hopefully it is a great game."

Even though the playoff system began in 1972, it wasn’t until 1982 that championship games were held in Columbus. The entire finals were held there from 1983-89 until Ohio State decided to install natural grass and asked the OHSAA to move. Columbus tried to bid for the games in 2007 but the games would have been held at Columbus Crew Stadium and Dublin Coffman. When Ohio State installed Fieldturf in 2008, Columbus became more of an option.

Since the finals were last at Ohio Stadium they came into their own at Massillon and Canton. Stark County was a tremendous host as Fawcett and Paul Brown Tiger stadiums were great venues. The playoff fields have also expanded where the finals are now held in early December instead of Thanksgiving weekend. Only five divisions existed the last time they were in Columbus.

In 1989, the only way to follow live if you weren’t at the stadium was to listen to the game on radio followed by a tape-delayed broadcast of the game on SportsChannel, which was a forerunner of FOX Sports Ohio, a week later. Now all the games are live on SportsTime Ohio including a 30-minute pregame show before each contest.

As for the stadium, capacity has grown from 86,071 to 104,944. Most of that is because the South stands are permanent and bigger. However, the stands are also closer. Remember in 1989, the all-weather track was still in place. There are also permanent lights as Thursday’s game will be the first state playoff game at OSU to be held at night.

Of the teams that have advanced to Columbus only three have played for a state title at Ohio Stadium – Lakewood St. Edward (Division I), Canton Central Catholic (Division V) and Minster (Division VI).

Canton Central Catholic head coach Jeff Lindesmith was an assistant in 1988 when the Crusaders won the Division IV title over Versailles. He has also seen what it is like to have a home-field advantage as the Crusaders won the Division III title in 2000 at Fawcett.

"There’s going to be a big difference from a sound and size perspective but once the game starts you focus in," Lindesmith said. "Sometimes you look at it from an adult perspective compared to the kids. A lot of kids dream of playing in Ohio Stadium and most might not have another chance. It is going to be a great honor."

There might be a couple coaches that have to cite the scene from "Hoosiers," noting that the goalposts and hashmarks are the same as any other venue. Lindesmith said though when he brought that movie up to his team on Monday, only five kids raised their hands when asked who has seen it.

There is an added bonus for the designated home teams since they get to dress in Ohio State’s locker room.

"I’ve attended only one game there and my eyes are going to be a little wide going into that locker room," said Jeff Fox, whose Nordonia squad faces Cincinnati LaSalle in the Division II final on Friday. "We just have to realize we are still playing the same game and we have to be prepared."

Three who have committed to Ohio State will be in action. Athens QB Joe Burrow, who is the favorite to win Ohio’s Mr. Football, Nordonia DB Denzel Ward and Benedictine LB Jerome Baker.