CINCINNATI — When Elder senior Drew Ramsey walks into The Pit Friday night, he will likely have a much different feeling than the 2020 season opener.
Thousands of fans will likely await the opening kickoff against visiting Covington Catholic at 7 p.m. in the 24th annual Skyline Chili Crosstown Showdown.
There is simply no replicating the anticipatory energy for players and coaches when a stadium has thousands of fans.
"My sophomore year (in 2019) it was just crazy because it was always so loud," said Ramsey, a Greater Catholic League South division football tri-athlete of the year in 2020.
"Every game was packed. Then last year there was just no one there. It was silent. You could literally hear what the coaches were saying on the sideline. It was so much different. We weren't used to it. When you know you're going to have 10,000 or 8,000 fans there it changes the game so much. It gives so much more momentum."
Ohio high school football games likely will return to a more traditional game-day atmosphere this week without COVID-19 restrictions and protocols.
Ohio lifted most statewide COVID-19 pandemic health orders in June and Ohio High School Athletic Association member high schools aren't subject to the state mandates and limited attendance procedures set forth by the Ohio governor's office in 2020.
Local and county health departments, school districts and private schools set their own guidance this fall for interscholastic and extracurricular activities.
Last season, high school sports venues could have no more than 1,500 fans or 15% of their seating capacity starting in August 2020.
The spectators last season were primarily parents, families or loved ones of the student-athletes. The euphoria around the stadium wasn't the same.
"I think last year was so different that you just hope that student sections can get back to being the way they were and fans in stands and packed crowds," said Tom Gamble, organizer of the Skyline Chili Crosstown Showdown. "We just hope that's the way it is because I think that's what makes high school football not only in this area but anywhere."
Mason High School is having a 60th anniversary celebration of its football program Friday night in its home game against Gahanna Lincoln. More than 50 alumni are scheduled to join the celebration in the pregame and halftime festivities.
Mason coach Brian Castner said the return of a larger fan capacity at Dwire Field is "long overdue."
"I met with my captains last night," Castner said. "Just to talk through a 15-minute captains' meeting, see them smiling and just chomping at the bit -- can't wait to get to Friday. You can't mimic that. You can't make that up."
Despite the easing of restrictions, school administrators are using cautious optimism to start the school year as the pandemic continues.
"On one hand there is a lot that I'm excited about," said Lakota West athletic director Scott Kaufman, who is president of the OHSAA board of directors. "We're going into this season with no fan restrictions, which certainly is a dramatic change from last year. But, in the same respects it's a little bit disheartening and frustrating that we're dealing with restrictions (in schools) that quite frankly are probably more self-induced than they are necessary.
"When you look at numbers of hospitalizations being where they are and the percentage of those being unvaccinated people -- without getting into a political battle -- we're all being handcuffed because of people choosing not to get a vaccination. If we want to get back to normal especially in the schools, we have to get people vaccinated."
St. X athletic director Brian Reinhart anticipates a sold-out RDI Stadium at Ballaban Field, which has a capacity of about 7,500 fans.
Reinhart said Monday there are no pandemic-related attendance regulations for those entering the game, but the school plans to make announcements and reminders to encourage the use of hand sanitizer, hand-washing procedures or wearing masks when necessary.
"You know last year I just can't say enough good about our families and our entire community was so supportive because they knew how important athletics was," Reinhart said. "I think we have a whole new level of respect for our coaches, our athletic trainers, our training staff -- just the amount of time and energy they put into supporting and enabling our young people to be able to play."