GREEN TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Chris Sexton offers no apologies.
The 1989 St. Xavier graduate is hoping La Salle wins its third consecutive Division II state football championship Thursday night in Columbus.
But, of course, the White Oak resident also hopes the Bombers win their third Division I state title Friday night too.
“Quite frankly, I’m really rooting for both schools which is a cop-out because they are different divisions,” said Sexton, whose son Andrew was on the La Salle state runner-up baseball team this past spring and is a freshman at Xavier University.
“I think the great thing about Cincinnati students who choose to go to private schools is they have a lot of great options.”
In the Greater Catholic League South division’s fiercely competitive athletics environment, this week is a time for both schools to support each other.
“Being in the same league, it’s pretty incredible that two schools located just a few miles apart are one win away from winning state championships,” said GCL South Commissioner Tom Gamble.
Just 5.2 miles separate the schools on North Bend Road. It is believed to be the first time two schools on the same street will compete for Ohio High School Athletic Association state football finals in their respective divisions in the same season. (Canton Central Catholic and Massillon Perry are in state finals this week and their stadiums share 13th Street, but not the school buildings).
La Salle (12-2) plays Massillon Perry (12-2) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Ohio Stadium. St. X (9-5) plays Cleveland St. Ignatius (13-1) at 8 p.m. Friday at Ohio Stadium.
If La Salle or St. X win, it would be the fifth consecutive season a GCL South team has won a state football title.
“It’s a pretty neat deal,” St. X coach Steve Specht said. “I am not going to say we’re the best league in the country. There's only four of us. But I am going to say this: I don’t know that there is any league that is better from top to bottom. The fact we have two of our teams in the state finals, I think that speaks volumes to the GCL and we should all be very proud of that.”
Families often choose one school or another on North Bend Road. Students know each other. They attend some of the same grade schools. There is competition for attracting those students.
Try attending a GCL football or basketball game. Bragging rights are putting it mildly.
But when it comes to the state athletics level, the GCL identity supersedes anything else between rivals.
“The GCL is a national leader, not just in athletic performance, but also in friendly rivalry,” St. Xavier President Fr. Timothy Howe said. “I've witnessed Elder, Moeller, La Salle and St. Xavier students chanting together ‘GCL’ at state meets, emphasizing our unity as Catholic schools. We are thrilled that La Salle will be competing once again for the Division II football championship. I'm hoping we can bring back two championship trophies to North Bend Road.”
La Salle defeated visiting St. Xavier 17-14 Oct. 7 in a game that saw more than 7,000 people, including Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, at Lancer Stadium. The King of the Road trophy was awarded to the Lancers, who snapped a five-game losing streak to the Bombers.
That game gave La Salle a share of the GCL South championship -- a title it eventually won outright for the first time in program history, which dates to 1962. La Salle fans still hang their hats on the GCL outright title and will do so for years to follow.
Moreover, it wouldn’t a be a stretch to say La Salle fans also want St. X to win for a reason to stake a claim to the mythical overall Ohio champions.
La Salle Principal Aaron Marshall has tagged St. X in tweets the past two weeks wishing the Bombers the best. He’s taken some criticism for his support for the Bombers, but doesn’t mind. He wanted St. X to go on a postseason run.
“This is what’s great for the GCL and this is what’s great for Southwest Ohio football,” Marshall said. “It’s good for all of us.”
La Salle coach Jim Hilvert and St. X coach Steve Specht share similar sentiments. Both teams have persevered through adversity in their own ways this season.
La Salle, ranked No. 26 nationally by the MaxPreps computer rankings, is trying to become just the ninth school in Ohio history to win at least three consecutive state football titles. It would be the first locally since Moeller (1975-77).
“La Salle is simply doing what it has done the last two years -- saving its best football for the most important time of the season,” Gamble said. “At any level in any sport, to have an opportunity to win three straight state titles is amazing.”
After two straight losses to Colerain and Christian Brothers (Tennessee) in mid-September, the Lancers needed a gut check. There were doubts.
But the Lancers defeated Winton Woods for the first of 10 consecutive wins. The 55-14 win over visiting Moeller was the turning of the season.
“The rest of the season has been businesslike,” La Salle coach Jim Hilvert said. The first playoff game against Edgewood (23-21) was a wakeup call for the team. Ever since then the kids have put their foot on the gas pedal.”
The Lancers have 28 players attempting to win their third consecutive state title.
“No game is too big for our kids,” Hilvert said. “The kids are used to facing adversity by playing in the GCL.”
The injuries that have plagued St. Xavier’s season are well documented. The Bombers are just the second five-loss team to play in the state final.
“The season has been the strangest season I’ve been through in my career,” Specht said.
Like the Lancers, there is a redemptive narrative about St. X.
“The coaching job of Steve Specht and his assistants along with the outstanding play of senior quarterback Sean Clifford and the resolve of his teammates will be something that this St. Xavier team will remember forever,” Gamble said.
The Bombers, ranked No. 21 nationally by the MaxPreps computer rankings, have rallied to win three consecutive playoff games. But the Bombers have also lost on the last play to Warren Central, lost to Colerain in overtime and were shut out by St. John Bosco (Calif.) on national television.
“We won and lost games every way possible,” Specht said.
Even some former St. X players tweeted their disapproval of the team in late August.
But the Bombers found a way in the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year after winning Week 10 against Louisville St. Xavier.
“You finish 5-5 and people look at you sideways,” Specht said. “We were close to hosting the first round. It speaks to our schedule."
No one questions the Bombers’ resolve entering Friday.