By JAMIE BAKER
It’s Week 14 of the high school football season and only 24 of Ohio’s 717 high school football teams are still practicing.
Two of those teams are Liberty-Benton and McComb.
Not a bad showing for the Blanchard Valley Conference, once referred to some 30 years ago by late Courier sportswriter Dave Egbert as the Cow Pasture League, to have two schools in the state semifinals.
In fact, only two other conferences, the mighty Midwest Athletic Conference and Three Rivers Athletic Conference, can boast having two of its members playing in state semifinals this weekend.
Toledo Whitmer and Toledo Central Catholic are carrying the TRAC banner into the Division I and Division II semifinals, respectively.
Ironically, Liberty-Benton takes on MAC champion Coldwater in the Division V state semifinals Saturday night at Lima Senior while McComb plays MAC powerhouse and defending state champion Marion Local in the Division VI state semis Friday night at Wapakoneta.
The playoff runs by the Eagles and Panthers have proven that some of the best small-school football in the state is played right here in Hancock County and in the BVC.
Instead of perhaps watching a parade on television or helping their family prepare the family’s Thanksgiving feast, the coaches and players at McComb and Liberty-Benton will get the rare opportunity to practice football on Thanksgiving Day.
In the 46-year history of the BVC only seven other teams from the conference have advanced far enough in the postseason to be able to practice on Thanksgiving.
McComb’s only previous state semifinal appearance was in 1983 when coach Bill Banning’s Panthers beat Middletown Fenwick. A week later, McComb earned the Division V state title with a 6-0 win over Newark Catholic.
Hardin Northern reached the state semifinals four times under coach Pete Brunow. The Polar Bears lost close regional semifinals to St. Henry (48-40) and Delphos St. John’s (14-13) in 1996 and 1997. They reached the 2002 Division VI title game with a 20-0 win over Columbus Grove in the state semifinals on a snowy Thanksgiving weekend at Donnell Stadium.
Two years later, the Polar Bears became the second BVC school to win a state football title, whipping Danville 35-0 in the state semifinals and beating Norwalk St. Paul 20-8 for the crown the following week.
This season marks the third time in the past six years Liberty-Benton has gotten to practice on Thanksgiving. The Eagles also played a Week 14 game in 2006 and 2008 they are again enjoying every bit of it.
“It will be just a normal Thursday, except we’ll be at Donnell Thursday morning. We’ll go at 9 a.m. and get them out of there at 11 or 11:30,” said Liberty-Benton coach Tim Nichols.
“That’s a lot better than getting things around, eating and watching TV. Being able to practice football that morning is much better than all that.”
At both Liberty-Benton and McComb, the players, coaches and fans have plenty to be thankful for this week.
“I’m thankful that I’m still somewhat healthy at 43. I guess that depends on what you compare it to,” Nichols said, jokingly.
“My wife and kids are healthy and we have a good group of coaches and kids and we are playing for something on Saturday night.”
Right now, Thanksgiving is all about football for the Eagles (12-1) and Panthers (13-0) as they prepare for their state semifinal opponents.
“I’m definitely thankful for my family and all of my friends and getting to play football for an extra four weeks, and hopefully a fifth, with my teammates,” said Brandon May, a 6-foot-3, 229-pound two-way junior lineman for Liberty-Benton. “I’m just thankful for this opportunity because a lot of players don’t get it.
“It’s just something we’ve never experienced because we haven’t been this far before and we just want to keep it going. When you get this far you don’t ever want it to end. You want it to keep going.”
Another recurring theme at Liberty-Benton was family. Families that gather Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving and will come together again Saturday night at Lima pulling for their sons, brothers, nephews and cousins to knock off the Cavaliers.
“I’m thankful for my parents and my family. My brother Eric is coming home from college so it will be great to have our family all together,” said Liberty-Benton senior defensive back and receiver Kyle Bowsher. “He helped me become the athlete I am today. He was older than me, so he was always pushing me and I’m grateful for that. He’s proud of what we have all been able to do and he’ll be there at the stadium Saturday night.”
It’s a similar story a few miles north at McComb as the Panthers went through their practice in preparation for Marion Local.
McComb will also practice on Thanksgiving Day, the day before they are scheduled to take on the Flyers at Wapakoneta. The players’ parents are planning on preparing a Thanksgiving evening feast for the team.
“I’m thankful for my team, my teammates and coaches. Without our coaches we wouldn’t be where we are today, ” said McComb two-way senior tackle Spencer Nauth. “I’m also thankful for my family and our fans for supporting us.”
Wide receiver/defensive back Brock Wilson was thankful for getting the opportunity to play with his friends for an extra four weeks, as was BVC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Jones.
Two-way senior Jimmy Brown had perhaps the longest list of things he’s thankful.
“I’m thankful for our team and all the hard work we’ve put forth on the field and off the field, I’m thankful for all the time the coaches have put in preparing us for all the games,” Brown said. “And I’m thankful for all our fans, not just at McComb but from all over the area from Leipsic and L-B and all the guys coming to our games and cheering us on. It means a lot.”
We’re all thankful to the Eagles and Panthers for giving us another reason to watch high school football for at least one more week.
By JAMIE BAKER