Friday, October 22, 2004

Lakota vs. Lakota fires up the fans

Both East, West schools strong contenders this year

By Michael D. Clark
Enquirer Staff Writer

Lakota West seniors Chris Perry (left), Bobby Kelley (center) and Mahmoud Abusway cheer Thursday at a pep rally at the high school.
Call it the Cross-Township Shootout.

Tonight's football match between West Chester Township's Lakota West and Liberty Township's Lakota East high schools pits, for the first time, two contenders since the schools were created in 1997.

And like Cincinnati's famed basketball Crosstown Shootout between the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, there are bragging rights to be had by the victor in an annual game that has drawn some of the largest prep crowds - up to 10,000 - in Butler County.

This will be the first time the contest will take place on one of the school's campuses - Lakota West - and finds both teams enjoying their best seasons. Lakota East (8-0) and West (7-1) have earned Top 10 rankings in the Enquirer Division I Coaches Poll and are battling for the playoffs. .

"This is our Ohio State versus Michigan," Lakota Schools Athletic Director Stu Eversole says.

Throughout this suburban community, anticipation for the game has reached fever pitch. Students are quick to boast of their Lakota East Thunderhawks while West students tout their beloved Firebirds. At Lakota West, a pep rally Thursday fed the passions; at East, teachers donned T-shirts to show their loyalty.

Paul Cox, a Lakota West parent, explains that while the East versus West matchups in other team sports - such as basketball and soccer - also pack in the fans, there is nothing like high school football.

• Both high school buildings are identical and cost a combined $53.1 million before opening their doors in 1997.
• The schools, which did not play each other during the initial 1997-98 school year, received their nicknames by splitting the old Lakota High School's mascot moniker - Thunderbirds. East is the Thunderhawks and West the Firebirds.
• All Lakota ninth-graders attend a single freshman school for one year.
• West, in West Chester Township, has 1,892 students; Liberty Township's East has 1,710.
• Besides being Ohio's eighth-largest school system with a 16,940 student enrollment, Lakota is also the state's largest district to receive an "excellent" academic rating, which is the highest possible from the state.
"In West Chester, this football game is more than a rivalry. It represents a battle for the pride of Lakota," Cox says.

Lakota district officials are happily scrambling to bring in more bleachers, portable toilets, bigger concession stands, extra police security and parking attendants to handle the waves of fans expected to file in for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.

"There has never been a game here with more implications than this one," says Tom Gamble, radio sports analyst for 1360 Homer, who emceed a Lakota news conference for the big game earlier this week.

"I've been part of local high school football for 20 years, and this kind of game is what makes Cincinnati high school football unique."

For the last two years, 30,000-seat Yager Stadium at Miami University hosted the game.

Before that, 7,500-seat Galbreath Field in Warren County handled the game, and often, overflow crowds. But the Saturday-afternoon games at Yager - combined with the distance of Miami's Oxford campus - reduced the crowds.

Then, school budget cuts - about $7 million worth - prompted Lakota school officials to move the game for the first time to one of the high schools, saving about $25,000.

Originally, Lakota district officials were going to squeeze as many people as they could into Lakota West's stadium off Union Centre Boulevard. But local fire officials, citing crowd safety, put a damper on that, limiting the crowd to 8,000. The stadium seats about 4,000.

But there is no limit to the excitement. And the overall good-natured quality of this intra-community rivalry isn't by chance.

Lakota officials purposely created a single freshman school that feeds into both high schools so that students would bond throughout their high school years.

Lakota West junior Joe Baker, who transferred from Princeton High School, says: "It's not like the two schools hate each other, but we both want to win."

In Lakota Schools Superintendent Kathleen Klink's mind, everybody wins. She has her own game strategy: "First half I sit on one side of the field and for the second half, the other side."


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