HOWARD – When the East Knox football team made its historic playoff run this fall, hundreds came to watch. Community members packed the stands and stood along stadium fences – sometimes two or three rows deep – to watch the Bulldogs reach the state semifinals for the first time in school history.
Perhaps the most engaged – and passionate – members of the team’s support system didn’t watch from the stands, however. They had a front-row seat.
Several members of the East Knox Junior High football team served as ballboys for the varsity team this season. They tossed balls to referees and brought the team water as needed. They had sideline passes for some of the biggest moments in program history – and now they feel inspired to make their own memories in the years to come.
Their coaches believe they have a good shot at doing so.
The East Knox Junior High team, comprised of eight seventh-graders and 14 eighth-graders, went 8-0 this season. The Bulldogs blew out several local teams, including Div. IV powers Highland and River Valley, before facing Centerburg in their biggest game of the season.
The Trojans hadn’t lost in two years, coach Randy Reese recalled, but East Knox went on the road and won, 24-12.
“We knew we had a good team when we went over there and put one on them,” said Reese, the father of varsity head coach Cody Reese.
The Bulldogs capped off their undefeated season with a win over arch-rival Danville, 42-30. The eighth graders finished their junior high careers with a record of 11-0-1; East Knox tied Div. IV Licking Valley last year, despite being outnumbered 46 players to 14.
Reese, who has coached the junior high team alongside Bill Stokes for nearly two decades, said this year’s group seems capable of big things down the road.
“Just like our senior boys we have now, groups of boys like that don’t come along very often,” Reese said with a grin.
East Knox’s current seniors also went undefeated as eighth graders. Even back then, the setup was the same – Kadden Lester played quarterback, Caleb Gallwitz was the running back, Gage Steinmetz played receiver, etc. So was the team’s attitude.
“They really don’t like to lose. They’ve always been motivated,” Stokes recalled. “They don’t want any part of losing.”
The group was talented, sure. But according to Stokes, what set it apart was its toughness.
“If you’ve got an excuse, you know what they’ll tell you? ‘Don’t use it,’” said Stokes, watching the team warm up before its state semifinal game last Friday. “We’ve used that forever.”
Reese said this year’s junior high team displayed a similar mentality. The Bulldogs beat teams like Highland and Centerburg with a mix of physicality and talent, which he believes will translate to the next level.
“This year, these guys were unbelievable…” Reese said. “They’re athletes and they know how to play the game.”
Stokes believes “four or five” junior high Bulldogs will soon find their way onto the varsity field. If all goes according to plan, Reese added, this group could rewrite history itself one day.
“I believe if they get with this group of coaches, which do a fine job – if they just work hard and listen to their coaches, they’ll be fine,” Reese said. “We’ll have another good team.”
For now, though, the junior high Bulldogs are content with dreaming. They seemed starstruck last Friday, walking the sidelines alongside the already-legendary varsity players.
Parker Kimball, a seventh-grade running back/linebacker, spoke glowingly about senior linebacker Dawson David. David was the emotional leader of the team – the first to pump up the crowd after a big play or deliver a bone-crushing hit – and Kimball said he likes to play the same way.
“Let’s go ‘Dawgs!!” Kimball screamed during the third quarter of Friday night’s game, his toes just behind the white sideline chalk, as close to the playing field as possible. The Bulldogs needed a third-down stop and Kimball immediately channeled his inner David. “You got this!!”
Dylan Springer, a seventh-grade wide receiver/linebacker, refrained from stating his favorite player.
“It’s all about the team,” Springer said.
But he couldn’t refrain from jumping up and down as East Knox made big plays to stay in the game.
“Ball!” the referee would yell. Springer would snap out of his trance and get back to work.
The junior high players working the sidelines said they’ve learned plenty from the varsity Bulldogs this season. East Knox launched dramatic second-half comebacks twice this postseason – erasing a 20-point deficit in the regional semifinals, then a 14-point deficit in the regional finals – and eighth-grade lineman Lane Lashley said it’s taught him “to not stop fighting and keep going hard until it’s the last whistle.”
“The thing that wins us all these games is we never quit,” Kimball added. “We’re always hitting, hitting, hitting, until the last moment.”
Despite the trend toward athletic specialization, Kimball, Lashley and Springer all play football, basketball and baseball. But they all agree football is different. There’s something about the sport that excites them like nothing else.
“I love it,” said Lashley, who’s been playing since second grade. “I mean, you can literally hit someone as hard as you can.”
“It’s not like other sports. You can do whatever you want, as long as it is in the rulebook,” Kimball said with a smile. “You can hit hard, you can play with your heart, and it’s strategic.”
“You can take your anger out,” said Springer, cutting to the chase.
All three have brothers who have played, or are playing, varsity football. Kimball’s older brother, Dominik, is a sophomore lineman. Springer’s older brother, Dustin, is a freshman linebacker. Lashley has a younger brother in the program, and his older brother played varsity football for Mount Vernon.
The trio seems to eat, sleep and breathe East Knox football. Wearing their junior high game jerseys on Friday night, they appeared ready to take the varsity field immediately if need be. They even answered interview questions like their varsity idols, using some of Coach Reese’s favorite phrases.
What led to your big win against Highland?
Kimball: “We won in the trenches.”
What do you remember about the victory against Centerburg?
Springer: “It was a hard-fought, physical game, two very good teams going at it. Our line did a great job blocking and our backs hit the holes, they did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
What will it take to continue this success at the high school level?
Lashley: “You’ve gotta keep working hard, no matter what. Play with your heart, not your mind.”
They’ve even developed a common disdain for Danville, years before their first Devil-Dog Game.
“It always feels good to beat your rival,” Kimball said, “especially when they’re the Blue Devils.”
Lashley, Kimball and Springer were among six junior high Bulldogs to work Friday night’s game. According to Stokes, the group eagerly volunteered.
“We got these guys for the year and I said, ‘You can do it all year,’ and they love it,” he said.
Years ago, players like Lester and Gallwitz and Steinmetz shared similar roles. They bounced along the varsity sidelines, sporting oversized junior high jerseys, slinging footballs to the referees and fist-bumping their idols.
“They all wanted to do it back then, too,” Reese said with a smile.
The difference between the two groups, five years apart? This year’s junior high class got to see history unfold before its eyes.
“It’s incredible,” said Lashley, who has been a ballboy the last two seasons.
“It’s been one heck of a ride,” Springer added.
“It’s big,” said Kimball, when asked about what it meant to the community. “You know, you can’t really put it into words.”
Now, Lashley said, the goal is to compete on this stage one day. In a varsity uniform, under Friday Night lights, with everything on the line.
His teammates agreed.
Last Friday, 30 minutes before the start of the state semifinal game between East Knox and New Middletown Springfield, several of the junior high ballboys played an impromptu game of pickup on Orrville’s Serpentini Field.
Kimball went deep, and Lashley fired the ball toward the end zone. Multiple Bulldogs leapt to receive it, and giggles ensued as the ball was tipped around in the air.
For a moment, they were just boys – 12 or 13 years old – both aware and unaware of what lay ahead. What they could accomplish on fields like this down the road. What it would mean to their families, and their communities, to do so.
As the varsity Bulldogs emerged from the locker room and prepared to run through a banner, moments before making history for their school, the ballboys retreated to the sideline.
One day, they surely thought.