Sports Vault: Everything changed in 1988 when Elder ended Moeller's 71-game GCL winning streak
Panthers hadn't beaten Crusaders since 1972
Tom Ramstetter | WCPO contributor
5:00 AM, Aug 22, 2017
CINCINNATI -- For all the success the Elder football program has enjoyed since the 1920s, there was a time three decades ago when the Panthers -- along with the rest of the GCL -- played David to Moeller's Goliath.
And Goliath always won.
The Crusaders brought home seven big-school state titles between 1975 and 1985 and Moeller won 70 straight regular-season league games between 1972 and 1988 in what was then called the Greater Cincinnati League. The streak was 71 straight over GCL foes with a 1981 postseason win over St. Xavier and dated to a 7-0 Elder win over the Crusaders on Oct. 27, 1972.
But everything changed on Oct. 14, 1988, in front of an estimated 12,000 on Moeller's home turf at Galbreath Field when Elder senior quarterback Steve Keller found senior receiver Jeff Meier for a 6-yard touchdown with 4:21 remaining in the game to put the Panthers ahead for good.
Senior linebacker Brad Austing intercepted Moeller quarterback Casey Fisher with 2:27 remaining and Moeller's GCL streak was over in a 36-33 final.
The Panthers had finally knocked the Crusaders off their 16-year-old perch.
"The law of probabilities -- at some time, some place, somewhere, you are going to play somebody that will beat you -- was not on our side," then-Moeller coach Steve Klonne said that year.
Keller completed 21 of 32 passes for 347 yards that night with four touchdowns. Meier made 12 of those catches for 187 yards and three touchdowns.
"I think Steve Keller played the game of his life," then-Elder coach Tom Grippa told The Cincinnati Post after the game. "Moeller did everything they could defensively to stop Steve, but he came through. I don't think there's a better quarterback in Cincinnati."
It had seemed a heroic effort like Keller's was what was needed to finally vanquish the Crusaders in the GCL. Several times, Elder came close to ending the streak. They were denied in a 24-20 loss in 1974, a 14-8 loss in 1977, a 21-19 loss in 1980 and a 15-7 final in 1981. The Panthers then lumbered through some lean years in the mid-1980s before Grippa took over in 1987.
"There were times that we had teams that were as good as Moeller, but we didn't make that one block or catch that one pass," Grippa said that year. "The '88 edition of the Elder Panthers can say that we were able to make that block and make that catch."
Elder was 7-3 in 1987, setting up a magical 1988 season in which the Panthers would win the first of two straight GCL titles and their first since 1972 -- the year before Moeller began its streak of 15 straight GCL titles.
The Panthers began the 1988 season with three straight wins before falling to defending state champion Princeton in Week 4. The Panthers entered the Week 7 game against unbeaten Moeller following back-to-back easy wins over St. Xavier and La Salle. Still, many weren't giving the Panthers much of a chance against Mighty Moe. Even a local radio personality known still for stirring the pot didn't like Elder's chances.
"We just wanted to bring back Elder pride," Keller said after the game. "That (Bill) Cunningham guy on the radio was saying that Elder pride was dead, but we had to show him."
And the Panthers knew better. That Elder senior class had beaten Moeller as a freshman team and as sophomores on the reserve squad. They just had to get over the hump on a Friday night.
It finally happened on Oct. 14, 1988.
"We thought they'd be real pumped up because they had a personal vendetta against us, Keller said after the game in 1988. "We were able to make some adjustments and Coach Grippa called some great plays."
Despite the fact that the Panthers knew they could beat Moeller, things didn't start so well and Elder found itself down 14-0. Moeller drove 76 yards on the game's opening drive and took the lead on Fisher's 31-yard pass to Chris Asbrock. The Crusaders went ahead by two scores just before the end of the first quarter.
"When I looked up at the scoreboard and saw we were behind 14-0, I thought we may get blown out," Grippa told The Post.
Then an interception by senior defensive back Scott Collins changed the game. Keller followed with a 42-yard strike to Meier to get the ball to the Moeller 8 and a 6-yard touchdown run by senior running back Dennis Penderghast put the Panthers on the board.
Keller hooked up with Meier for an 11-yard touchdown pass just before halftime to tie the score, 14-14.
"I think I was a little tight in the first half because of the excitement," Keller told The Post. "Moeller was also doing a lot of things on defense that we hadn't seen, which made it even more difficult. But in the second half, everything came together."
At one point, Keller told his receivers that he was just going to heave the ball away from the talented group of Moeller defensive backs and that they should just run and get it.
"He told us that he was just going to lay it out there," Meier said. "He just threw it up there and we had to go get it."
Moeller took a 21-14 lead in the third quarter, but Keller hit Penderghast for a 31-yard touchdown and then connected with Meier for a 47-yard score after the Panthers forced Moeller to punt, and Elder had a 28-21 lead.
Fisher hit Joe Toepfer from 33 yards out toward the end of the third period, but Adam Hyzdu's point-after was wide left and the Panthers led 28-27 entering the fourth quarter. The Crusaders took their final lead of the game when Fisher and Toepfer hooked up for an 80-yard touchdown pass with 9:06 remaining, but Mike Olexa couldn't get into the end zone for a two-point conversion and the lead was just 33-28.
That set up the heroics by Keller, Meier and Austing, and Moeller's streak was over.
"We had situations six or seven times in the game where we dropped (the ball)," Klonne said that year. "I just think they are a great team and they played a great game."
It was the only regular-season loss for the Crusaders in 1988, but a rematch with the Panthers in the playoffs ended with a 24-14 Elder win in the program's first playoff appearance. Elder finished the regular season 9-1 overall and with a 4-0 record in the GCL that also included a 30-0 rout of Roger Bacon on Oct. 21. Princeton ended the Elder season at 10-2 with a 28-14 win in the regional final on Nov. 19, 1988. Princeton beat Westerville North in the state semifinals, but fell to Cleveland St. Ignatius in the state final as St. Ignatius began a streak of nine state titles between 1988 and 2001.
Moeller remained an elite program, but Elder was a player as well and added league titles in 1989, 1991, 1995 (shared with La Salle) and 1996 under Grippa.
Grippa left Elder for Fairfield after the 1996 season with an 84-23 record, including 26-11 in the GCL and 9-5 against Moeller.
"I think you are going to see some more great Moeller-Elder games," Grippa said in 1988.
Grippa's 1996 team was the first regional champion in program history and that season included two wins over Moeller.
Princeton's 1987 state title was the last by a Cincinnati-area Division I school until Elder knocked off Warren G. Harding in 2002 for the program's first state title. A year later, the Panthers made it two in a row over Lakewood St. Edward. Moeller returned to state finals in 1989, 1993 and 1997, but did not secure the program's eighth state football title until 2012.