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Published: 10/8/2009

Sidelines: 50 years ago, battle began for Irish Knight trophy

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Nate Hobbs, Central's top offensive threat, is expected to return to action. He suffered a toe injury in the season's third game. Nate Hobbs, Central's top offensive threat, is expected to return to action. He suffered a toe injury in the season's third game.
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 St. Francis receiver Scott Loy pulls away to score against Southview's Thomas Stichter. Loy has 15 catches for 350 yards. He has scored seven touchdowns. 
St. Francis receiver Scott Loy pulls away to score against Southview's Thomas Stichter. Loy has 15 catches for 350 yards. He has scored seven touchdowns.
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As many of the players from the inaugural Irish Knight football rivalry game between Central Catholic and St. Francis de Sales gather tonight for a 50th anniversary smoker, tomorrow for the 51st installment at Central's Gallagher Stadium, and once more Saturday for a golf outing at Whiteford Valley, one thing is abundantly clear.

The spirit of the competition in this City League series took hold from the outset and has never waivered.

Certainly the rivalry lasted a lot longer than the original trophy, which was created with the intention of traveling between the schools based on the outcome of each year's game.

That first Irish Knight existed only one year.

Rev. Ronald Olszewski, the longtime principal at St. Francis and now the school's president, recalls that the original statue was placed in an office at Ottawa Park waiting to be engraved when a fire in that building destroyed the trophy. A replacement trophy was made and remains to this day.

Father O, as he is affectionately known after the 35 years he has spent at the Bancroft Street campus, has vivid recollections of the first game. It was played on a sparkling Sunday afternoon, November 8, 1959 when he was a freshman student at St. Francis. With CYO programs cancelled that day, a crowd of 10,000 showed up at the University of Toledo's Glass Bowl.

For many years, part of the tradition of Irish Knight week at St. Francis is Father O's speech during the pregame pep assembly. He delivers a spirited recounting of that first game, admittedly taking liberties with the facts each year. He adds a little zeal to inspire the team and the rest of the student body.

“I embelish the story,” Father O said. “I add a few wrinkles each year.”

The facts of that first game speak well enough for the Knights, even stripped of hyperbole.

St. Francis 28, Central Catholic 0!

That score demanded an exclamation point because it stunned a community that expected a close contest, presumably to be won by the more established Fighting Irish program. St. Francis, which opened as Toledo's second Catholic school just a few years earlier, was in just its fourth season of football. The Knights, not yet City League members, had played teams from smaller schools around northwest Ohio while they got their feet wet in football, at first without the benefit of juniors and seniors.

By 1959 the Knights of head coach Bobby Recker were ready for the big time in Ohio football, even if Central and other area teams didn't know it. That season they opened with a 14-0 loss to a powerhouse DeVilbiss team, which also topped Central by the same 14-0 score.

Still, as one of Central's alternating junior quarterbacks recalls 50 years later, he and his teammates simply did not give a whole lot of thought to playing St. Francis prior to that day.

“I don't really think we respected them that much,” admits John Keller, who shared QB duties that day with Tom Zientek. “To tell the truth, we didn't really think that much about the game.

“But it turned out they were a pretty good football team. Their speed was much better than we expected, and they put a lot of pressure on me.”

The Irish completed just three of 19 passes in the game, and St. Francis meanwhile overcame three lost fumbles and two nullified touchdowns to get TDs from four different players in the romp.

“It was a magnificent day for us,” recalls Tim Harshman, 68, who was a junior linebacker for the 8-1 Knights in 1959. “Back then, people around town called us the ‘Lily Whites' because we wore shirts and ties and sport coats to school. They thought we thought we were elite or something, but really most of us were just the sons of working-class parents.

“We started the season losing to DeVilbiss, which was a powerhouse. Then we had string of about four or five shutouts. Our defense was pretty strong, so we weren't surprised we beat them.

“Our principal, Father Ward, was so excited he gave us the next day off school. But a lot of us went to school anyway just to mill around and talk about the game.”

“Once we got beat,” Keller recalls, “I don't think I talked to anyone from St. Francis for about seven years. That game got the whole rivalry going. I remember our principal, Msgr. [John] Harrington had to walk across the field and hand that trophy to their principal. He wasn't real happy about that.”

The rivalry, and the Irish Knight trophy tradition were on.

As the teams approach the 51st regular-season installment of the Irish Knight game, St. Francis maintains a 28-21-1 series edge, that despite Central's current five year winning streak under head coach Greg Dempsey.

This time, the Knights enter at 6-0 (3-0 CL) and ranked No. 4 in the latest Division II state poll, while host Central, rated 14th in D-II, comes in at 5-1, 3-0. The big mystery, aside from the final score, will be how many people will be able to cram into Gallagher Stadium, which has permanent seating for about 7,000.

Dick Cromwell, the dean of City League football coaches in his 26th season at St. Francis, is hoping his Knights can end their five-year drought versus Central. This dryspell presents uncharted territory to Cromwell, who is in the 20th year of his second stint with the Knights.

“The kids are excited to play this game,” Cromwell said, “no matter if you play it early or late in the season, or whether you're coming off a couple easy games or a couple tough games.

Keller, who has been Central Catholic's public address announcer since 1978, and Harshman were instrumental in organizing the 50th reunion. If that milestone number wasn't enough reminder for Keller of his age, another one tomorrow will be. His son, John Keller, Jr., will also be back from Atlanta for the game to celebrate his 25th class reunion. The younger Keller was a three-way, first-team All-City player for the Irish, earning honors on offense, defense and at kicker.

When Cromwell first arrived in 1979, St. Francis had lost five straight times to Central and seven of the prior eight meetings.

After losses to Whitmer and Sandusky to open the season, Cromwell and his Knights had their backs to the proverbial wall as they approached their September 21 Glass Bowl matchup with the Irish.

But St. Francis rolled to a 44-13 victory, which was the largest winning margin in the Irish Knight sreies until Central tied it with a 38-7 win in 2006.

It was the first of six straight wins over Central for Cromwell, before he left to take the coaching post at Findlay in 1985 on the heels of guiding the 1984 Knights to a Division I state playoff championship.

Cromwell returned to St. Francis in 1990 and promptly ran off four more wins in a row versus the Irish before final dropping the 1994 and 1995 Irish Knight matchups. That was followed by eight more Knight wins in succession, bring Cromwell's record in the Irish Knight games to 18-2.

“I remember very vividly being indoctrinated into the Irish Knight competition,” Cromwell said, “and being able to win as big as we did in that first game at the Glass Bowl has stuck in my mind for years. It was one of the big wins in my individual career.

“Another one I remember is a year we were favored and [Central defensive end] Eric Olsen picked up a fumble and returned it about 70 yards for touchdown and beat us. It's been tough the last five years, competing well but losing to them. Hopefully we'll get back on the right track.”

Including the combined 6-1 mark he has against Central in two Shoe Bowls, three Hall of Fame games and two D-II state playoff meetings, Cromwell is 24-8 versus the Irish.

Over the last five seasons, Dempsey, who guided Central to a D-II state playoff championship in 2005, has enjoyed the upper hand to lift his Irish Knight mark to 5-4. With playoff losses to St. Francis in 2001 and 2002, Dempsey is 5-6 overall in the rivalry.

More significantly, Central won four straight City championships.

One loss from the Irish Knight series that stands out the most to Dempsey, however, is the one the Irish suffered in 1989 (15-7) when he was a senior lineman for the Irish.

“Losing my senior year [1989] is still something I don't have a very fond memory of,” Dempsey said. “We were a state-ranked team coming off a tough loss to DeVilbiss in the last seconds for the Red Division title. We were 7-1 and still playing for a playoff spot and St. Francis was 4-4.

“They came out and made a few more big plays than we did. It snowed that night. It still bothers me the way we played that night. They were a good team, but it was a game we should have come away with.”

The impact of the Irish Knight game impacts most who participate, according to the coach.

“Anybody who played in this game definitely knows what it meant to them, personally and as a group,” Dempsey said. “It brings a sense of pride to your campus for a year. When you win the game you have the bragging rights, and you have the trophy, which I think is probably the coolest traveling trophy that I've seen yet.

“When you lose it it breaks your heart. When you win it it makes you as happy as you can be.”

Central looks to surpass its prior record of five consecutive wins (1974-78) in the Irish Knight contest.

“It's big,” said Irish senior linebacker Jake Henderson. “The rivalry is fun, with the fans coming out tailgating. It's exciting. We're working hard because we're trying to keep it for another year. It's so much better when we have it.

“They're the favorites, so they're going to come out hard and ready to attack. We're going to try and stop that. They pound the ball pretty well. Their strong and their big up front. They can make big plays, like they did against Whitmer. A couple big plays can change everything.”

St. Francis, which had won four straight City championships (2001-04) immediately before the current Irish run, is favored to stop Central's streak.

“It's a rivalry that means a lot to our school and all our alumni,” said Knight senior R.J. Rios. “There's a lot of bragging rights. It's a big game and we haven't had the Irish Knight the past [five] years. “It'll probably come down to who has more heart and who wants it more.”

Among the many St. Francis faithful eager to see Central's streak snapped is longtime Knights athletic director Carl Janke.

“I've been here for 32 years and that trophy has been here 21 of those years,” Janke said. “It got used to seeing it here. But it's been gone for five years now, and I kind of miss the little guy.”



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