The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

November 2, 2013

A David Negin column: It’s what sport is supposed to be about

For the Star Beacon

MADISON TOWNSHIP — The pageantry of high school sports couldn’t have been more perfect Friday night at Blue Streak Memorial Stadium.

There were two rival teams, Madison and Riverside, that entered the game with identical overall records (7-2), playing in front of a standing-room only crowd, with two of the best marching bands in the area, showcased on local television (SportsTime Ohio), all while grinding it out on a muddy field playing for championship implications and playoff assurance.

It pitted two teams that entered the game deadlocked in a 23-23-1 series record against each other.

But, it was the human element surrounding both teams in Madison’s 28-0 victory over the Beavers that trumped any and all of those things.

Sure, the Blue Streak dominating win allowed coach Tim Willis’ team to share the Premier Athletic Conference championship with coach Dave Bors’ Beavers.

However, the story behind Madison was how a near-fatal injury (C-1 vertebra) to senior fullback Ben Bruening, caused last week by a helmet to helmet collision against Lakeside, that was the rallying cry for not only the football team, but the entire school. Parents, students, and even some coaches lined the stands and the sidelines Friday night with Bruening’s No. 8 on the back of shirts that were made this week.

It served as inspiration to his team when Bruening was in the lockerroom for the pregame speech.

It was touching to see an entire community give him a standing ovation as he, fitted with a halo that requires four screws to be drilled into his skull, was pushed in a wheelchair down the track in leading the Blue Streaks on the field.

And, perhaps the most touching moment, was when Bruening was handed the game ball on the track behind the south endzone following the game, fittingly, Madison’s eighth win of the year.

“This game, it means everything to me, to see the guys go to the playoffs,” Bruening said while holding the game ball. “I’ve been working with these guys all offseason. We always say, ‘work hard, play hard’ and I know these guys work hard and they played pretty hard tonight. They deserved that win.”

Many of Bruening’s senior teammates stepped up in leading the charge. Willis, in fact, gave his seniors credit for leading his group.

“We have a great group of seniors,” he said. “I’ve been saying that since Day One. This senior class is a class act. They are quality kids and rallied around the cause this week.”

Senior tailback Brandon Davis, for instance, wasn’t going to let a few bumps and bruises of his own keep him down. The standout two-way player led the charge, rushing for 151 yards (33 carries) and three touchdowns.

“I got banged up there a little bit, but I just thought of Ben in my head the whole game,” Davis said. “I said, ‘I can’t stop now, it’s all for him.’ Emotions were crazy with him today; this whole past week. This win was for him. He deserves it.”

There was an offensive line that dominated the line of scrimmage. Featuring four seniors (Kurt Smith, Brandon Burkholder, Reed Zawacki, and Cody Cavender), the Blue Streaks had the ball for more than 31 minutes of the contest, never giving Riverside much opportunity to put anything together.

Then, there was senior Jared Yoe who had perhaps the biggest play of the night on the opening drive of the second half, with Madison clinging to a 7-0 lead at intermission. Riverside drove it all the way to the 16-yard line, before a penalty moved it back. On first and 23 from the Madison 29-yard line, Yoe intercepted Riverside quarterback Maxx Brubaker’s pass over the middle and returned it 61 yards to the 25-yard line. Five plays later, junior Connor Nikses plunged it in for, you guessed it — EIGHT yards.

Madison went ahead and, behind a dominating defense, Riverside never threatened again.

Despite taking the loss hard, it was the human obstacles that his Beavers’ had to overcome this year that has given Bors and the Riverside community much to celebrate.

Due to budget hurdles, Riverside players had to pay nearly $800 each to be part of the team. Riverside started the season 0-2, including losing Brubaker (shoulder) in the first half of an opening week loss to Perry.

Following a Week Two loss to West Geauga, Riverside proceeded to reel off seven-straight wins, including a huge one last week against five-time defending PAC champion South.

“I’m so proud of these kids, our coaching staff,  and community,” Bors said. “There is no way, on paper, we should’ve been in this situation, in Week 10, with the kind of hurdles we’ve had to overcome both on and off the field.”

Bors spoke confidently that his team still had enough quality wins to qualify for the playoffs.

“This is still good for us,” Bors said. “Been here before. I’m lucky that I have a staff here that has been in many big games so no one is panicking right now. If anything this is a major focus point for our kids to go through on Monday. Wide-eyed, we got hit hard, we’re stunned a little. We won seven in a row, you want to be going into the playoffs on a winning streak, but if this makes us better, this exposes some weaknesses that we have to work on and they see that, I’ll take this game. I’ll be 7-3 instead of 8-2 if we get better out of this.

“I’ll take this 100 times out of a 100 even though it stinks right now and this whole week is going to stink. I don’t even want to think about it. But hey, this is why people love this game because now we have a whole week to figure this out so we’re ready. We’re going to go after it."

So, is Willis’ group.

Negin is freelance writer from Madison.