KINGS MILLS, Ohio -- Hit hard and apologize later was how Lakota East quarterback Mike Kohler put it after his Thunderhawks beat the Lakota West Firebirds 15-8 at Galbreath Field in the first Lakota District East/West rivalry game on Sept 18, 1998, in front of approximately 11,000 fans.
It was a little more than a year after the two new Lakota high schools opened in August 1997, splitting the district. Most of the players knew each other well, and the game was the beginning of a true neighbor-versus-neighbor rivalry, so to speak.
"It was hard forgetting about the big crowd and the guys we knew on the other side," East running back Rick Jones told The Cincinnati Post that night.
"This was different."
Kohler led a 15-play, 72-yard game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter and capped it with a two-yard touchdown run for the eventual game-winner.
"There's a lot of great guys on that team over there," Kohler said that night. "But this was a game where you hit them as hard as you could and apologize later."
It had been somewhat of a long road to get to that game because the schools did not meet on the football field the first season after the split.
The Lakota High School Thunderbirds had been a charter member of the Greater Miami Conference, but by its final football season in 1996, the school had become the largest co-ed high school in Ohio with approximately 3,500 students.
With growing enrollment cramping students at the high school, Lakota District voters passed a $50 million bond issue for construction of two high schools in February 1995. A new junior high school and the renovation of the old Lakota High School on Tylersville Road were also in the plan.
But why two high schools rather than a brand-new school big enough for the whole district? The idea was to increase student participation in all extracurricular activities -- sports and otherwise.
"We could have built one giant school and had an athletic powerhouse where our students would not have had as many opportunities to take part in all sports and the band, cheerleading, student government and other activities," Stu Eversole, then the Lakota District athletic director, told The Post in 1997.
So, in 1997, Lakota East and Lakota West opened in new and identical buildings that contained the sophomore, junior and senior classes. Lakota East was built near I-75 in southeast Butler County; Lakota West was built west of I-75 in West Chester. Their respective teams, both descended from the Lakota Thunderbirds, became the Thunderhawks and Firebirds.
The freshmen for both schools attended classes at the old Lakota High School building and were commingled in their classes. For sports, however, each student was designated as either a Lakota West or a Lakota East student and was restricted in which freshman sports teams for which he or she could try out and compete.
And that idea to increase participation in extracurriculars? It worked, especially in football. East began its program in 1997 with a roster of 58 varsity players. West suited up 41 varsity players that first year.
"We have not had 99 players from grades 10-12 on the football roster at any one time in our history," Eversole said that fall.
The disparity in roster size was the result of the way in which students were assigned to a school. The district allowed the seniors to pick their new school, and 21 of 24 seniors on the team followed Greg Bailie, the old Lakota football coach, to East. On the other hand, most of the senior boys' soccer players followed Steve Cummins to West, according to Eversole.
Current West coach Larry Cox began his tenure at West that first fall after only two years of varsity experience at Bellbrook and with "only one senior, a place kicker, that had any varsity experience," according to Bob Ashby, the first sports-information director at West. Bailie was going into his 13th high school season, and his fifth in the Lakota District.
The remainder of the students were assigned to either school by residence.
Finally, the two new football teams took the field on Aug. 29, 1997. West routed Dayton Patterson, 33-8, in its new stadium that night with a little added Lakota District history. Sophomore cornerback Justin Pederson returned an interception 102 yards for the Firebirds. Since 1959, no interception had been returned longer than 99 yards at Lakota. Junior quarterback Kofi Babb scored the first Lakota West touchdown on a one-yard run 5:10 into the first quarter. Babb also passed for two TDs.
West flew in its mascot on a helicopter as part of its inaugural game festivities.
"The highlight so far has been watching them mature as young men and players," Cox told The Post that August. "They have to, because the Greater Miami Conference shows no compassion for the young."
Senior tailback Jay Boyd carried East to its first win that night, a 48-39 final at Huber Heights Wayne, with 297 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Two of those scores came on long runs to rally from a 31-27 deficit. Boyd finished with 348 all-purpose yards.
"Our kids have caught the spirit of everything new and are really enthusiastic," Bailie that August.
West won just one more game that season -- a 44-32 win over Dayton Belmont in the season finale and finished 2-8 overall and 0-7 in the GMC. East was 4-6 and 2-5 in the GMC.
That set up the inaugural Lakota East vs. Lakota West matchup on Sept. 18, 1998 -- the third week of each program's second season -- and both entered the game with 2-0 records. Each meeting from 1999 through 2016 was the final week of the GMC schedule as a sort-of rivalry night in the league.
"The first game was on the third night of the season because of that's where the GMC draw put it," Ashby said. "Stu Eversole campaigned for the league to have a rivalry game on the last night of the conference season and that East/West be one of the designated rivalries. This proposal was adapted the following year."
With the date set, the site presented somewhat of a problem.
"The problem was the home-side seating capacity of both (new stadiums) was 2,460 and the visiting side held 1,000," Ashby said. "With standing-room the maximum capacity of the schools' fields no more than 4,000, the two sides were far out of balance."
So, Eversole contracted with Galbreath Field as the game location.
"Nobody will ever know what the attendance of that game was," Ashby said. "People came streaming in, there were no turnstile counts, and in an effort to get everybody in before the game started, it is my recollection that they just threw the gates open and assumed that the people streaming in either had bought season passes or had bought tickets."
Galbreath Field was the site of the first four meetings. The fifth and sixth meetings were held at Miami University, and the location for the game has alternated on each school's home field every season since 2004.
The big crowd's familiarity with the opposing team, fans and community made for an atmosphere unlike anything the players had seen. Pete Arbogast, the one-time voice of the Cincinnati Bengals, did the public address announcing that night, according to Ashby.
"Our seniors had been in a few big games a couple of years ago, but it was nothing like this," Bailie told The Post that night.
East scored in the first quarter on a safety, and a Kohler one-yard touchdown run with a blocked point-after made it 8-0. West scored in the second quarter on a 15-yard scoring run by Matt Temesy. Quarterback Kofi Babb hit Gerald Parker for a two-point conversion to tie the game at 8-8 by halftime.
Neither team scored in the third quarter, setting up Kohler's second touchdown run to go ahead by seven with 7:04 remaining in the game. West managed a nine-play, 82-yard drive that East's Mike Rabin stopped with an interception in the end zone with nine seconds remaining, according to Ashby.
Rabin has since been inducted in the Lakota Athletic Hall of Fame.
"I think people better be aware that Lakota West football has arrived," Cox told The Post that night. "We played well against a tough team, and I think we left the ghosts of last season behind us now."
Despite starting the season in 1998 with two wins, neither team performed well the rest of the way. East finished 4-6 and West won just one more game to finish 3-7.
Both schools have grown in total enrollment by nearly 1,000 students since those early days and have been GMC co-champions in football. East qualified for the OHSAA state playoffs in 2012 and 2014. West has made five postseason appearances -- 2004, 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2014.
West leads the series with East 13-8, but East has won the last two meetings, including a 35-0 final this season on Sept. 29. Eight of those games have decided either GMC championships or qualifications for the playoffs or both.
The rivalry game concept was abandoned this season by the GMC, and the East vs. West game was on Week 6 for the first time.