By Tom Ramstetter, WCPO.com contributor
Purple-clad football players have been seizing the moment at The Pit at Elder High School and on gridirons across town for decades and likely will for decades to come. That's the way it has been at Elder since 1923 for one of the most storied high school football programs in the country.
But in 2002, the Panthers finally carried the Elder community to the top of the Ohio high school football world with the school's first Division I state football championship. On Nov. 30, before 20,395 fans in an often-blinding snowstorm at Canton's Fawcett Stadium, Elder defeated Warren Harding, 21-19. The win also gave Greater Cincinnati area its first DI state football title since Princeton's win in 1987.
It was a season that defined "seizing the moment" and Elder coach Doug Ramsey wanted to make sure his players continued to display that attitude in the state final.
"I told the guys," Ramsey said after the game, 'Seize this moment. This is your opportunity. You may never ever get a chance like this again.'"
Throughout the season, the 2002 Panthers rarely missed a chance to shine. But that version of the Panthers had lost a lot from what many considered one of the program's best teams, the 2001 Panthers. Elder had beaten the No. 1 team in the state three times in 2001 -- Cleveland St. Ignatius, Warren Harding and Colerain -- before losing to Greater Catholic League South rival St. Xavier in the regional final. That was the latest in a long line of great Elder teams that fell just short. Coach Tom Grippa's 1996 team was the first regional champion in program history, but those Panthers lost to eventual state champion Lima Senior in the state semifinal.
2002 would be different.
Elder welcomed five starters back on offense that year, including senior linemen Tom Anevski, Digger Bujnoch and Marty Bauer, as well as senior wide receiver and future Cincinnati Bearcat Bill Poland and junior running back Bradley Glatthaar, who also wound up at UC. But the Panthers needed to break in new starting quarterback junior Rob Florian, and they had only three returners on defense. The Panthers looked like they could be the area's top team and the favorite to win the GCL South, but not many expected what was to come.
Elder began the season with a dominant 42-7 win over Dixie Heights at Nippert Stadium in the Crosstown Showdown, but suffered the season's lone loss, 44-20, against perennial Kentucky power Louisville Trinity at Ryle High School in Week 2. The Panthers only got better from there.
Elder beat Western Hills, 42-8, at West High in Week 3 and opened the home schedule at The Pit with a 45-7 rout of Indianapolis Roncalli in mid-September to go 3-1. The Panthers beat Cleveland St. Ignatius, 45-35, on the road and then won the GCL title with a 21-17 win over St. X at The Pit, a 47-21 win over Moeller in Lockland, and a 29-19 win over La Salle in Price Hill.
Elder closed the regular season with a 45-30 win over Indianapolis Cathedral and a 35-8 win over Oak Hills at home, and the Panthers had the top seed in the Region 4 playoffs with a 9-1 record.
Then came a classic 20-14 win in a rematch with St. X in the opening round of the playoffs before 18,634 at Nippert on Nov. 2.
Glatthaar scored on a 1-yard run with 11:02 to play to break a 14-14 tie and give the Panthers their first lead of the game. The extra-point kick was no good, but Elder was able to keep the Bombers off the scoreboard for two more possessions to hold on.
"It feels good to be able to beat a quality program like that twice in one year," Ramsey said that night. "They might have gotten the eight seed, but they are really in the top four, if not the top two teams in the city. You beat a team like that twice in one season, that's saying something. That's a real accomplishment."
Elder blew out Huber Heights Wayne in the regional semifinals, 31-3, on Nov. 9 at Paul Brown Stadium, then needed a 28-21 win over Colerain in another classic at UC for the program's second regional title. Senior tight end Brian Crowley sank the Cardinals when he caught a 26-yard over-the-shoulder pass from Florian in the back of the end zone with 1:05 left in the game, capping a seven-play, 75-yard drive, and lifting the Panthers before 20,501 fans at Nippert Stadium.
"I can't remember the last time he caught a pass in a game," Ramsey said after that game. "It's been a while. But he came through there and Rob made a great throw. It was just a great play to finish a game off."
Elder, which had lost in the regional finals the past three seasons, was off to the semifinals, where the Panthers held on to beat Findlay, 34-31, at Columbus Crew Stadium. The Panthers trailed 14-0 early, but rallied to reach the state final for the first time.
The last hurdle was Warren Harding, ranked No. 11 in the country by USA Today and the top-ranked team in the final Associated Press Division I state poll in 2002. The Raiders were 14-0 and, after having lost then-Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett to graduation, featured future Michigan receiver and New York Giants Super Bowl champ Mario Manningham.
Just as Ramsey expected, the Panthers went out and made the most of that final opportunity in 2002. Florian scored on an 11-yard touchdown run with 18 seconds left in the opening quarter for a 7-0 lead after holding a 98-1 edge in total yardage in the period. Warren Harding did not get a first down until midway through the second period, and Elder made it 14-0 on a 51-yard touchdown pass from Florian to junior wide receiver Ian Steidel.
"We went behind the 'hogs' all year and we followed them this time, too," Florian said after the state final. "The offensive line opened some big holes."
Neither team scored in the third quarter, but the Raiders began a comeback on the first play of the fourth. Raiders senior quarterback Mike Kokal completed a screen to Richard Davis at the 34 and the junior scampered into the end zone, igniting the Harding fans. Florian then dealt what seemed to be the final blow with a 41-yard run to the Harding 1-yard line before carrying it in on the next play for a 21-7 lead with 3:48 remaining.
But Harding continued to creep back into the game. Kokal hit Manningham for a 73-yard touchdown pass with 3:34 remaining to make it 21-13, but Harding missed the point after. Davis then carried the ball into the end zone from two yards out to bring the Raiders to within two points with 50 seconds remaining.
"I was getting kind of scared," senior defensive lineman and Ohio Tri-Defensive Player of the Year Tony Carvitti said later. "But I had faith in my teammates that we would pull it out. Our coaches have been saying that defense wins championships and that's what happened tonight."
On the two-point bid to tie the score, senior linebacker Kevin Harnist stormed through the line and hit Kokal as he released the ball. The pass floated awkwardly in the air before landing harmlessly at the goal line. Harding tried an onside kick, but the ball didn't travel the required 10 yards and the Panthers began celebrating the Cincinnati area's first Division I state football title since 1987 -- and Elder's first.
"Our guys never give up," Ramsey said after the game. "We could have put our heads down and said, 'Oh, it's going into overtime.' But they didn't, they stepped up and made a big play."
Elder outgained Harding 314-251 yards. The Raiders gained 157 of those yards in the fourth quarter after the Panthers held Harding to just 46 yards in the first half. Elder held all-state receiver Treymayne Warfield to six catches and 41 yards.
Florian rushed for 95 yards and passed for 165 more. Glatthaar hobbled to 57 yards on 16 carries and Poland caught three passes for 58 yards as the Panthers withstood in-game injuries to Glatthaar, Poland and fullback Pat Lysaght.
The state championship trophy was added to what was at that point three state basketball championships, five state cross-country titles, 11 state baseball titles and two volleyball state titles.
"It's just an indescribable feeling," Florian said. "My heart dropped when that ball went up in the air like that. This is just great. I don't even know what to say."
An estimated 5,000 fans showed up the next day at The Pit for a welcome-home celebration.
The Panthers won their second-straight state football title in 2003, again going 14-1 on the season, winning the GCL South outright and steamrolling Lakewood St. Edward, 31-7, in the state final.
That 2002 season was the beginning of a run of dominance in Division I for Greater Cincinnati teams. Colerain earned its first state title in 2004, and St. X followed with its first in 2005 and another in 2007.