BY DAVID ECK
-- Look for the maroon-and-white caravan headed north from Warren County today.
Thousands of fans, parents and students will be motoring up Interstate 71 today, eager to watch the Lebanon High School Warriors as they play the Chardon Hilltoppers in Massillon tonight for the Ohio Division II football championship game at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
It's the team's first state championship game in 18 years.
Those who cannot make it in person will keep an ear tuned to an audio broadcast of the contest, or follow it on the Internet. Live broadcast can be heard on Lebanon cable channel 24 on the Time-Warner system. During the game, updates can be found on the Internet at www.lebanonwarriors.com
The team took off Thursday morning amid cheers, music, hugs and tears.
"I'd shut down if (my employees) all wanted to go," said Lebanon resident George Galloway, owner of G&K Quality Automotive Care on Columbus Avenue. "I think they're a pretty well-rounded bunch of kids. They motivate the heck out of us."
While most towns are getting into the swing of the holidays, it's still football season in Lebanon. Holiday
decorations contend with Warriors signs for space.
For weeks, merchants in downtown Lebanon have decorated their store windows in maroon and white. And along U.S. 42, marquees show messages of support.
Even Lebanon's most famous landmark, the Golden Lamb Inn, is not immune to Warrior fever -- a football banner hangs from its upper balcony.
In restaurants and over water coolers, the game is the topic of conversation.
"There are a lot of people going to go," said Dee Meece, who can't because she needs to keep her beauty salon open. "Small town goes big."
Karen Resetar had a window on Lebanon Warrior madness Thursday. Mrs. Resetar, secretary for the athletic department, was helping sell pre-game tickets up until the 3 p.m. deadline. At day's end, she counted 2,684 tickets sold, of about 3,500 available. Why the steady stream of fans plucking tickets up until the last minute?
"Maybe when they saw the bus going through town, with all the signs on the windows, maybe they got Warrior mania, Warrior fever," Mrs. Resetar said.
Lebanon expects to make about $8,000 off the team playing in the state football championship. School districts participating in finals are reimbursed by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
Melissa Hall won't be going, but her daughter, a Lebanon freshman, will be making the trip.
"She's so excited she can hardly see straight," Mrs. Hall said.
Wayne Snider, owner of A-1 Carryout in Lebanon, has tickets and is trying to rework his schedule to make the trip.
The game has become a focal point for the Warren County seat, population about 13,700.
"I think people now know where Lebanon is," Mr. Snider said. "They certainly know it's the home of the Warriors."
The title game is a far cry from earlier years when the team's record wasn't that great, and the state playoffs a distant dream. Lebanon City Manager Richard Hayward, whose son plays in the band, remembers the days when the only people in the stands were the parents of the players, the cheerleaders or the kids in the band.
"Lebanon has won a victory as soon as they walk on the field," he said. "It'll bring together that whole generation. It's something to celebrate, and all communities need to celebrate."
Some people who aren't originally from Ohio can have trouble understanding local fascination with high school football.
"I'm from California, and we don't follow high school football there," Mr. Galloway said. "You're not in the big leagues until you're NFL out there."
At the high school Thursday morning, the team received an enthusiastic, emotional send-off. Students yelled and cheered as the players boarded buses to carry them north. The band played. Lebanon police cruisers escorted the buses through town.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the whole community," said Diana McIntosh, whose son, David Hillard, is on the football team. "I think the whole town's going up."
One hitch for some in town: City Hall's Christmas party is Friday night, and city employees have to decide whether to forgo the game in favor of the party.
Mr. Hayward was torn, but opted to stay home for the party. "It's not an easy decision," he said.