HOWARD – For a team on the brink of history, the East Knox Bulldogs seem awfully loose.
They bounce around Mount Vernon’s Energy Field on Tuesday, November 19, exchanging high-fives and competitive chirps. A playlist of rap, rock and pop music booms from the little black speaker they brought from home. The players dance in between reps; for a team that’s been practicing since August 1, they seem to have plenty of energy left in the tank.
“These kids are crazy,” head coach Cody Reese says, cracking a smile as he jogs from one drill to the next.
The Bulldogs are giddy, and why wouldn’t they be? They’re one of eight Div. VI teams left playing in the state of Ohio. On Friday, they’ll have a chance to make history by becoming the first East Knox team to advance to the state semifinals. They’ve made it to the regional finals twice before – the last time being in 1999 – but have yet to break through to the Final Four.
It’s been a roller-coaster ride to get to this point. East Knox (12-0) won its first playoff game since 2005 at home two weeks ago, using a blocked extra point to upend Ashland Crestview, 21-20. Then, last week, the Bulldogs erased a 20-point third-quarter deficit to win by the same score against Seneca East.
This was a team that had placed ninth in its region – one spot away from a playoff berth – two years in a row coming into this season. East Knox had been good, but not good enough. This year, that narrative changed. The senior-laden Bulldogs derived hunger from heartbreak, motivation from pain, and have taken the program to new heights.
“They’ve learned from the shortcomings, they’ve learned through the hard times, and I truly believe those lessons have helped build that character to help them overcome in situations that we’ve been put in over the last couple weeks,” Reese said.
So, yes, the East Knox Bulldogs seem awfully loose three days before the biggest game of their lives. They’re playing with house money. But also consider this: when they step onto Marion Harding’s Ohio Health Field on Friday night – when they line up for kickoff against the world-beating Carey Blue Devils (7-5) – they won’t be heading into battle alone.
In fact, they’ll have an entire community behind them.
The support for East Knox this postseason has come in droves. It’s come from all parts of Knox County – even six miles up the road, where things typically aren’t as friendly for the purple-and-white crowd.
But it’s been most visible in Howard, where motivational signs are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, in yards and along Route 36.
“It gives you a good feeling,” said Darcy Knight, president of the East Knox athletics booster club. “It gives you that small-town feeling, that people really do care.”
Knight is one of a dozen individuals who have shown up every week this postseason to make new signs for the team. The group consists of team moms, coaches wives and anyone else who wants to participate. The signs say things like “Small town, big dreams” and “I got 99 problems but Carey ain’t one.”
They’re light-hearted and fun, but some also come with a backstory. One reads “Last dog out of town, turn out the lights,” which is meant to replicate a sign made for the undefeated 1988 team. Another says “Refuse to Lose,” which was the slogan for the undefeated 1996 squad. As much as they’re meant for encouragement, the signs also function as good-luck charms.
“I feel like we had such a positive response from the boys, they loved it. Obviously, everybody likes to be made to feel special, and they had expressed that they were thankful for that,” said Natasha Lester, mother of Kadden (quarterback) and Peyton (defensive back).
The group typically made signs for the team before the Danville game, she explained, but this year’s postseason run has allowed for additional opportunities.
“Every week it seems like, ‘Oh my gosh, what can we do better?’” Lester said.
Producing new signs each week is no small task. The group spent four hours making regional final signs last Sunday, Knight said; they’ve done it in the school cafeteria, in Reese’s garage, or wherever they can find space to paint.
Then, on Thursday nights, the dangerous part: hanging the signs up along Route 36.
“Last time, we loaded up in my Yukon and they were jumping out, going from phone pole to phone pole, stapling signs to the wood,” Lester recalled, laughing as she described the scene. “It’s probably something we wouldn’t condone our kids doing, because it’s a little dangerous.
“We go out on Thursday nights and risk our lives to hang these signs, but we have so much fun doing it,” she continued. “We’re doing it for our boys.”
Just off of Route 36, past the sea of purple-and-gold signage, another community member has dedicated himself to supporting the Bulldogs on their postseason run.
Jason Huffman, owner of Lakeside Barber & Shave Parlor, has organized send-off parties for the team before its last two games. This week’s “12th Man Send-Off” includes live music, a chili cook-off, face painting and corn hole, along with free drinks, pizza and haircuts. Huffman said he called every business in town to see if they’d like to participate.
“I just reached out to everybody. Bugged ‘em. It’s like I was selling radio advertising,” Huffman joked. “Last week we did it and it went well; it was planned in one day. This week, everybody wanted to get involved.”
Last week’s party drew a crowd of 100-plus to Plank Road, where Huffman’s barber shop sits between Kelly’s Pizza and Vasbinder Insurance. As the team bus was escorted up Route 36 and out of town by the Eastern Knox County Joint Fire District, it took a detour to make a lap around the “12th Man” crowd.
Parents and community members cheered the team on, while players and coaches waved out the window as they passed by.
Huffman expects an even bigger crowd this week.
“I’m thinking we’re going to have a ton of people up here,” he said with a grin.
Huffman, like Knight and many of the team’s most avid supporters, does not have a child on the team. He has children in the school system, but they’re younger.
He wanted to throw the send-off parties for several reasons.
“We don’t have a Main Street, you know? We don’t have a main road that they go out of. This community’s so different because we’re so spread out. It’s not like Clear Fork where you’ve got Bellville and Butler,” said Huffman, noting that East Knox students come from Howard, Bladensburg, Apple Valley and elsewhere.
By organizing send-off parties, Huffman figured he could turn Plank Road into East Knox’s “Main Street” for a day.
He also did it simply because he likes the team. He’s gotten to know the players by cutting their hair, and he said he's always been impressed with the group.
“They’re just awesome kids," Huffman said.
Huffman wanted to give the boys every advantage possible as they headed deeper into the postseason.
“I think it’s hard when you’re in the playoffs and you’re this deep, and the teams are getting better and better, [but] this team really thrives off the 12th Man," he said. "It really pumps them up.”
Huffman isn’t from here, but he’s become one of East Knox’s biggest supporters. The 1996 Northridge High School graduate moved to Knox County eight years ago before opening up his shop in 2015. He has six children, including some he adopted out of foster care, and said he was blown away by the support East Knox Local Schools showed for his kids.
“East Knox is always just so welcoming. Even when they didn’t have any money and were poor, they were just so welcoming to help my kids who have special needs,” Huffman said. “That’s why I’ve always loved this school district.”
It’s been a special year for the district, Huffman noted. After failing nine straight operating levies before and during the economic recession, East Knox passed its second straight this fall – one that will fund the construction of a new junior/senior high over the next two years.
And then there’s the football team, making its first playoff appearance since 2005. Huffman believes that in a small community, all momentum is transitive.
“We haven’t seen that [support] in this community. We just haven’t…” he said. “I think the football team has just amped up things the last couple years.”
There have been others, too. Those who might not have made signs or held block parties, but have supported the team in their own way.
The boys have been well-fed; Mazza's Restaurant has provided Thursday-night meals throughout the season, LakeFit Nutrition sent the team to Marion last Friday with protein shakes, and the East Knox booster club has provided pre- and post-game subs for the team all season long.
D&B Designs made playoff shirts and created the team’s new away jersey. Kelly Schwartz has captured the team’s biggest moments on camera, taking thousands of pictures from the sideline during its postseason run. Tim Horton’s and North Main Cafe, both located in Mount Vernon, have sold purple-and-white pastries in recent weeks.
As the team made its way through the regular season undefeated, Knight said more and more people began packing the stands. One former coach, who now lives across the country, came back to Ohio to watch the Bulldogs play.
“People that haven’t come out for years are coming out to watch these boys,” Knight said. “It’s great to see the community so involved and so excited.”
Even neighboring school districts have gotten involved. Mount Vernon offered up its turf field for the Bulldogs to practice on the last two weeks, so they could prepare to play on turf as the postseason progressed. Kenyon College offered its athletic center to East Knox so the team could practice indoors last Tuesday, when temperatures dropped below 10 degrees.
“This is a group of young men that are embarking on something that’s just special,” Mount Vernon Athletic Director Justin Sanford said, “and if we’re able to give them an opportunity to keep that season going – and give them another opportunity to let them practice on turf to do it – we’re glad to do it.
“It’s a remarkable run for them, and I know some of our students know some of their students, so we’re just excited for them.”
This mentality is symbolic of the community’s at-large. Over the last three weeks, the East Knox Bulldogs have become Knox County’s team. Reese said the boys recognize this, and have gladly embraced it.
“I think it’s huge, just to feel that there’s a lot of people behind you, wanting to see you do good, that just makes you feel good about what you’ve done and what you’re trying to do… I think it gives them more confidence,” Reese said of the community support.
“You know, we’re representing something – not only our school now, and not only our community, but our county – and that’s nothing that we take lightly. It’s something we take very seriously and we want to do our very best with that opportunity.”
East Knox has a chance to make history on Friday night. But it won’t be easy.
Carey may have five losses, but three came to playoff teams. East Knox faced just one playoff team during the regular season – Northmor, which bowed out in Week 11.
The Blue Devils play physical, smash-mouth football. They got here by beating Western Reserve, 50-41, then Hillsdale, 7-0. They mix the occasional pass into their option running attack, making their offense difficult to stop in late-down situations.
They came into this postseason as the eight-seed – fractions of a point away from missing the cut – and they play with a noticeable chip on their shoulder.
“They’re a physical team – it’s gonna be the most physical game we’ve played all year,” Reese said. “We’ve gotta make sure that we’re extremely physical, have a great mindset going into the game to hopefully put ourselves in a position to be successful.”
But East Knox is no Goliath, either. This is the team that endured years of pain to get to this point; that fell short time and time again, only to rise from the ashes; that represents Howard, population 242, and a county that’s been painted purple-and-white over the last three weeks.
“The community support’s been amazing…” senior Gage Steinmetz said. “We’ve definitely gone through the wringer as a team, winning two games by one point. It’s taken everything that we’ve had and we’re going to keep giving it our all.”
If the last two weeks are any indicator, Friday night’s regional title game will come down to the wire. But as evidenced by the mood at Tuesday’s practice, East Knox isn’t worried. What do the Bulldogs have left to fear?
“Play hard; play together; do your job; and at the end of the day, have fun,” Reese said of the team’s goals. “We either win or go home. They know what they're playing for, they know what’s on the line, so I feel like the motivational piece isn’t so much needed, because they know exactly what it’s all about. We’re having fun, trying to become the best team that we can possibly be.”
And if all else fails, they’ll know one thing: they certainly aren’t fighting alone.