By DAVE HANNEMAN
In few other places than in the English language do two words so singly identify two states and so universally identify one sport.
Ohio State won’t be playing Michigan this week with a Big Ten football title, a berth in a major Bowl game or national rankings on the line. But elite football players from both states will be squaring off with pride and bragging rights on the line when the first-ever Ohio-Michigan Border Classic high school all-star game is held Saturday at 1 p.m. at Findlay’s Donnell Stadium.
“These kids are top athletes in their schools, in their state, so they want to go out and play well no matter who they’re playing,” Lima Senior’s Mike Fell, head coach of the Ohio team, said at a Wednesday press conference kicking off the event.
“But it’s Ohio and the team up north. These kids grew up with that so, yeah, it has that natural rivalry.”
“Whether it’s stated or not, it’s there,” said Mike Zdebski, head coach at Walled Lake Western High School who is heading up the Michigan all-stars.
“It’s always a big game when Michigan teams go down to play in Ohio and Ohio teams come play in Michigan, and a lot of that has to do with the Michigan-Ohio State game. The kids know it’s Ohio, and it’s a big deal.”
Opportunity was a linchpin in the creation of the Border Classic.
In addition to the annual North/South All-Star game put on by the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association, top Ohio high school graduates also competed against a team of Pennsylvania prep all-stars in the Big 33 Classic in Hershey, Pa. Pennsylvania opted to not renew that contract, though, instead scheduling a Maryland all-star team for its Big 33 Classic.
Michigan’s High School Football Coaches Association holds an annual East/West All-Star game, but then got an inviting offer.
“When Pennsylvania dropped Ohio from the Big 33 Classic, we were looking for some friendly competition, looking for a place to showcase Ohio players in a game of this magnitude,” said Erik Baker, Region 2 Director of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association.
“Mike Mauk (former president of the OHSFCA) and John McCallister (who runs a prep scouting service) presented this idea to us, the Ohio and Michigan high school coaches associations were contacted. This week this is the result. It’s been a great partnership between Findlay City Schools, the University of Findlay, the Findlay/Hancock Alliance and the resources of both coaching associations.
“A lot of big championship and all-star games are located in Franklin and Stark Counties. We wanted to show a high level of football in a different part of the state, and this was a chance to showcase Findlay and a great facility like Donnell Stadium.”
Michigan liked the idea, too.
“We had the East/West All-Star game since 1980, and it was a great opportunity for our kids in our state because it involved 88 of them,” Zdebski said.
“Knocking that down to 40 (players), obviously the talent pool has gone up. The better athletes, the big-time kids going to Big Ten and ACC-type schools, they want to play in this game because it’s not just a little in-state game any more. Not that the East/West game was a little thing, but this is much bigger.”
The original 40-man rosters from both teams included at least 17 athletes who had signed national letters of intent to play for Big Ten teams. Seventy-two of the original 80 had committed to play for Division I or top-notch Division II college programs.
Circumstances have altered the rosters a bit.
Cody Callaway, a 6-foot-3, 195-pounder out of Grafton Midview High School who had committed to play for Bowling Green State University, was one of two quarterbacks on the Ohio roster. Callaway, MVP for the North in its 23-14 win over the South in the Divisions I-II-III Ohio all-star game, has elected not to compete, though, after being picked by the Cleveland Indians in the 34th round of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft.
Kenton High School’s Grant Sherman, a 6-6, 200-pound University of Toledo recruit who passed for 5,920 yards and 65 touchdowns his senior year and ranks fifth among Ohio’s all-time leaders in passing yards (10,895) and career TDs (121), will be available Saturday, though. Callaway has been replaced on the roster by Justice Graham, a 6-8, 200-pounder out of Lima Senior who threw for 2,571 yards and 26 TDs last fall.
Another addition has been Kenton wide receiver Justin Sawmiller, who ended an outstanding four-year career at the Hardin County school ranked No. 1 nationally in career receptions (445) and No. 2 in all-time receiving TDs (59).
Ohio’s original roster also included six players who were co- or outright defensive players of the year in their respective divisions in the 2013 all-Ohio selections: Cincinnati Colerain’s Tegray Scales (6-2, 210, LB, Indiana signee) in Division I, Cleveland Glenville’s Marshon Lattimore (6-1, 185, DB, Ohio State) and New Albany’s Hayden Hatten (6-0, 195, LB, Saginaw Valley) in Division II, Dayton Thurgood Marshall’s Vayante Copeland (6-1, 185, DB, Michigan State) in Division III, Kenton’s Noah Furbush (6-4, 240, LB, Michigan) in Division IV and Patrick Henry’s Colt Pettit (6-4, 260, DL, Virginia Tech) in Division VI.
Michigan reportedly lost Travis Smith, a quarterback headed to Wake Forest, from its original roster.
“Northwestern, Notre Dame, Wake Forest … those three schools pulled their kids,” Zdebski said.
Both coaches were aware, though, that might be a possibility.
“We started a long time ago, and with the help of John McCallister, we picked the top 40 players in the state,” Fell said.
“We had some pulled (from the roster). What you have to realize, though, is that a lot of these guys have to report (to college) early. The big thing we’ve run into is that a lot of colleges want their guys in school by June so they begin lifting and doing all those things they need to get ready for their season.
“We have three guys going to Ohio State (Lattimore, Davon Anderson and Erick Smith) who are playing here on Saturday and reporting to Ohio State on Sunday. We have a couple of guys who got permission from Ohio (University) to play. They’ll be missing something there on Friday, but they’ll be playing here on Saturday.
“That’s why we appreciate the guys who are here.”
Both head coaches will have just three days of practice to prepare for Saturday’s showdown. But the quality of Division I talent on both sidelines should shine through just the same.
“I think the key in a game like this is to get the ball to guy who can do the job,” Fell said.
“You might not get in every play that you have during the season. But if you have a couple of studs out there, you get them the ball and turn them loose.
“You just let the kids come out and play.”
By DAVE HANNEMAN