CINCINNATI -- There are underdogs and then there’s the St. Bernard-Elmwood Place High School football team.
Even some of the most ardent of Tri-State pigskin fans don’t know much about the program.
In fact, unless you were a parent of a player on the team or had the Titans on your schedule, you might not have known the team existed. That's because for a good part of the past century, it didn't.
“A lot of people don’t know what to call us. A lot of times people just call us St. Bernard and chop off the Elmwood Place to save space because I don’t think they believe anyone will notice,” jokingly said school Athletic Director Kris Niehaus.
But that reputation changed a bit Saturday, Aug. 31 when the handful of teenagers and a female soccer player joined forces to accomplish something they hadn’t done in nearly six decades – win a varsity football game.
Making A Name For Yourself
Part of the reason for the Titans' lack of noteworthiness is the fact they’ve accumulated a 0-20 record over the past two seasons. In fact, coming into the 2013 season, the team hadn’t won a varsity football game in 57 years.
Sure, the team collected a handful of victories in junior varsity contests during that period, but those came 50 years ago.
That stretch of futility isn't the fault of the players and coaches, though. The blame is placed on the pad-less shoulders of district administrators and officials associated with the school who decided to end the program in 1961.
While jokes continue to linger about the city that the team was so bad that it wanted to fold, that's not the case. School officials said they decided to end the football because of the low number of participants and financial considerations, according to Niehaus.
But that all changed three years ago when the cries of the student body, desperate for a high school football team to watch under the Friday night lights, were answered by the local board of education. The group permitted the return of the programs for both the high school and junior high school in the district for the 2011 season.
Niehaus said the district hoped the investment would keep students in the school system and possibly serve as an attraction for outside students who had the opportunity to take advantage of the district's open enrollment policy.
"We wanted to find a way to get the players excited about the school, coming to school and staying at school," said Niehaus who admitted that his school had lost student-athletes in the past to schools with football teams.
For the 2011 season, coach Joe Olding, a former University of Cincinnati defensive lineman (’79-‘82), was at the helm of the ship. During that first season about 25 players turned out for the team, which had only three coaches. The JV team had two coaches.
In addition to a limited roster and coaching staff, the team didn’t even have a place to call home. The program played its home games at Roger Bacon, a neighborhood rival even if not so much of one on the football field.
The program also relied on the kindness of other schools like Moeller and Mariemont for essentials such as practice pants, goal posts, headsets for the coaches and even a few spare helmets.
"We definitely didn't do it alone. The school board helped us out a lot with most of the resources, but it took the community to help get this off the ground," Niehaus said.
While school spirit was high and the energy in the two communities was at a fever pitch for the return of football, the team struggled to an 0-10 against a combination reserve and varsity competition during its first year back.
The reality was similar the following year, in 2012, when they finished with another 0-10 record against non-league competitors.
Niehaus said that while hope wasn't lost, he felt as though some of its luster the team had in the community was tarnished.
"The community was still behind us but I could tell that the support was wavering a bit," said Niehaus who openly calls his school a "basketball school." Despite popular convention, the school district still holds its homecoming dance during basketball season.
New Season, New Expectations
After a rough two years, the Titans finally became a full-member of the Miami Valley Conference in 2013. The team also became eligible for the OHSAA postseason tournament for the first time in more than five decades.
While the thought of postseason play was exciting heading into the program's third year, Niehuas had to temper his expectations. The team had struggled mightily over its first two years and the program endured a great deal of change in the offseason.
When Olding, the program's architect, decided to step down from the head coaching position prior to the season, the program turned the keys to the ship over to inexperienced Thomas More assistant coach Jim Macke, who had never served as a head coach at any level before taking the job.
Like his predecessor, who stayed on in a coordinator capacity, Macke was a former defensive lineman. After a standout playing career at both Elder and Mount St. Joe's, the 28-year-old spent three years coaching the D-line at Thomas More.
But while his specialty was defense, Macke decided a new offense was key to helping his team of fledgling footballers, many of whom had never played a game of organized football before, take on teams like Cincinnati Country Day, New Miami and perennial favorite Summit Country Day.
"I thought the wing-T would be a good for us because it emphasizes motion and isn't something a lot of schools use or see. I thought it would give us a chance to make big plays, which I knew we'd need this season," Macke said about the misdirection offense popularized by University of Delaware Coach Harold “Tubby” Raymond.
Characterized by a wingback in the slot just behind the tight end, and a split end on the weak side, the wing-T offense places all three running backs in prime locations for counters, fakes and other misdirection plays. The system also features the quarterback waggle, which gives a good quarterback the chance to run or throw, causing potential issues for the opposing defense.
With a new offense in place and the majority of the team's veterans on the offensive line, Macke tried to find a way to pump his team up with confidence heading into the season.
"While I tried to be realistic, I tried my best to make sure the team was confident. I told them to expect to go 10-0," he said. "You're not going to be great unless you expect to be great."
Meet The Team. It Shouldn't Take Long
Even with a new offense and fresh air breathed into the system, the St. Bernard-Elmwood Place still faced obvious challenges heading into the season. The most obvious of which was a shortage of players.
Niehaus said he thought some of the players on the team had become disinterested in football after struggling over the past two season. Some transferred but other gave up the sport altogether.
With just 22 players signed up for the team, only 16 of which were eligible for the first game, Macke had his work cut out for him. But it was a challenge he felt fit the character of his team.
"I was a lot like some of the guys on the team. I'd never been a head coach before and they'd never played a high school football game before, some of them, so we could relate to one another," he said.
With two seniors, 17 middle classmen and a three freshmen, Macke had a lot of inexperienced players on his team, and a lot of players who'd have to learn to play both ways, star on offense and defense, if the team was wanted to be successful.
Another of the players on his team wasn't even a football player, at least not at first. The team's kicker was a soccer player -- on the girls' team.
Jessica Helphinstine was a three-sport standout before she made the decision to try out football for her senior year. An all-conference defensive midfielder in soccer during both her sophomore and junior seasons, Helphinstine had thought about trying out for the football team in the past but was dissuaded by one major reason, her brother.
"I actually thought about going out for the team (as a kicker) during my junior but I didn't because my brother was on the team and I didn't want to make things weird," said the 5-foot-2 converted place-kicker who says she has a range of a little more than 30 yards.
When her brother, Jake, transferred to Elder to play soccer, Jessica Helphinstine, who still plays on the girls' soccer team, knew it was her time to shine.
"I just thought, "Why not? I'm not going to get a chance to do this again and I know there are little girls who will look up to me," she said.
It wouldn't take like for Helphinstine to have her number called.
Game 1: When Everything Changed
On Saturday, Aug. 31, after only a couple weeks of practice, the Titans took the field against Riverview East in their season opener for the second straight year.
After suffering a narrow 21-14 defeat to the Hawks in 2012, Macke and his crew were confident riding into the unfriendly confines of Stargell Stadium in Cincinnati.
Yes, Riverview East struggled to a 4-4 record the previous season, but had gone 3-1 against Ohio Valley Athletic League competition last season and closed out year by winning three of its last four contests.
St. Bernard-Elmwood Place came out sluggishly and looked inexperienced on both sides of the ball early on, falling behind 12-0 after the opening quarter.
While they were down, the Titans weren't out, at least that's not something Macke would let them believe. They eventually managed to grind their way back into the contest with a ball-control offense that emphasized the rushing attack and clock management.
Midway through the second quarter the Titans got on the board for the first time on a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Dan Rayford. Helphinstine converted the extra-point to cut the lead to five points and give St. Bernard-Elmwood Place momentum heading into the second half.
It was more of the same in the second half for the Titans, who ran the ball ferociously, eating up clock and keeping their defense rested. Eventually the wing-T attack struck again in the third quarter when second-leading rusher Teonte Watson darted into the end zone to give his team its first lead and complete the comeback.
Watson finished with 76 yards on 15 carries, while leading rusher Brenden Carter rushed 10 times for 88 yards.
They Titans backfield ran the ball 47 times for 226 yards out of their wing-T formation, and limited Riverview East to 288 total yards for the game.
As the seconds ticked off the clock, the reality that a 57-year-old streak was about to come to an end began to set in for Macke, who called the moment "magical, something I'll never forget."
In traditional fashion, the team dumped a Gatorade bucket filled with water over his shoulders to commemorate the win, the first of his coaching career and the first many of his players had ever experienced.
"A lot of these guys have never won at anything, any sport, so it's special to be apart of that," Macke said. "That's what football and sports does for kids, it gives them moments where they can take pride in what they've accomplished."
The Titans Remember
While it was only one win and the expectations of a perfect 10-0 season and a lengthy march into the state playoffs are probably unrealistic, it'd be difficult to convince the Titans of that, especially after what happened Friday night.
For the second straight week, St. Bernard-Elmwood Place overcame the odds and picked up a victory, this time over Oyler in a non-conference showdown at Western Hills High School.
The Titans are riding their first winning streak in nearly 60 years.
St. Bernard-Elmwood Place dominated the MAD Hatters 20-0 thanks in part to a three-touchdown performance by quarterback Dan Rayford. The 6-foot senior completed only three pass attempts but two of them were for touchdowns, one a 20-yarder and the other an 18-yard strike. He also ran for a score.
“Overjoyed, the whole ride home the kids couldn’t stay seated," said Macke of his team's feelings after the game. "I think the only way we could feel better would be winning the Super Bowl, at least that's how it feels for our guys right now."
Can they keep up their winning ways? Not many experts think so. But so what? Who cares what the doubters think? Not the Titans.
"We're excited to play our next game and so our fans," said Macke who's proud of what his team has accomplished so far and knows they're set up for a successful campaign, whatever that means.
St. Bernard-Elmwood Place is scheduled to continue its march toward personal and athletic success Sept. 13 against Middletown Christian at Roger Bacon. It will be the team's first home game.
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