In the nearly suffocating heat of late summer 1997, on a concrete-like dirt surface subbing as a football practice field, the Springfield Catholic Fightin’ Irish began their march toward history.
So the cuts, bumps and bruises inflicted from that field? Call them a badge of honor. After all, with a ton of talent still around only one year after coming oh-so-close to glory, there was a job to finish.
And then came an idea. Why not eat the dirt before each game? As a new tradition, that is.
“We put a lot of work on that field,” then-senior tight end Tyler York said, “where there were a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
Thus, the 1997 Springfield Catholic High School Football Team planted a seed that grew into a state championship season – only the second ever recorded by a Springfield varsity football team. And what a special team it was, worthy of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame to induct the ’97 Fightin’ Irish with the Class of 2017.
The team’s induction is part of the annual Football Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company, set for 11 a.m. on Monday, October 16 at the University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center. (For tickets, call 417-889-3100, and see information below.)
Springfield Catholic raged its way to a 14-0 record, exacting revenge against Monroe City with a 28-0 victory in the Class 2 finale in the TWA Dome in St. Louis. A year before, Monroe City ended the Irish’ run.
“Unselfishness,” was the way their coach, Bobby Cornelison, described the ’97 Irish. “There weren’t a lot of egos involved. The kids didn’t care.”
In many ways, the rock-hard, dirt practice field served as a subtle motivator. Despite a cupboard of talents, Catholic had graduated 12 seniors off its 13-1 team that had finished second the year before.
When practices opened, there was Kyle Cernech back at quarterback, while firing off either line of scrimmage were future NFLer Seth Wand, Ryan Mais, Mark Stewart, Derrick Cara and John Goodman. All-State honors found each of them by Christmas.
The offense included York at tight end, Wand and Jake Halterman at the tackles, Bart Pinkerton, Blake Southern, and John Goodman at the guards, and Cara at center. John Litvan and Nick Denning were at tailback, Grant Knowlton the fullback, Stewart at wide receiver and Rickey Gallagher at tight end and wide receiver.
Several played both Iron Man football and teamed on defense with tackle Ian Sheridan, end Jeff Ketterson, linebackers juniors Chris Coleman and Nathan Carter and senior Chris Luzecky. Kirk Schlueter was the kicker.
Other contributing juniors included Dennis Kitsmiller, Joe Swisshelm, Craig Fetter, Carmine Incognito, Mike Swift, Brandon Powell, Brian McCaskill, Tim Gray, Matt Rollen, and Patrick Ahlstrand.
“They were that group of kids who would be messing around one minute and flip in a second and be serious,” Cornelison said. “That’s what made it fun in practice.”
Said York, “As soon as we got back (from losing at state in 1996), we were ready to get back to work. It was a mindset of, ‘We weren’t going to let that happen again.’”
As far as eating the dirt? Wand did the honors just before the coin flip of the season-opener, days after Knowlton suggested it.
“I said, ‘I’m not eating the dirt. Who eats the dirt?’” Wand said, before ultimately relenting. “The more I thought about it, I thought, ‘Why not?’ … It was hilarious because nobody thought I was going to do it.”
All seniors thereafter took Wand’s lead in a season full of theatrics. The Irish beat four state-ranked teams, including New Madrid County Central, 13-12, in which a late fourth-down defensive stop set up Catholic for the 40-yard, winning TD pass in the final minute. The team also rallied to beat No. 5 Cabool 35-10 midseason.
Those games were wake-up calls.
“That was somewhat of a reality check that, if you lose, you’re going home, and everything you’ve worked for for three years could just go away,” Cernech said of the Cabool game.
“When these kids were freshmen and sophomores, they started 0-3 and the injuries mounted,” Cornelison recalled. The team was 33-2 after that. “But they stayed the course and bought into what we were doing.”
In the playoffs, Catholic beat Warsaw, East Newton and No. 2 Carrollton.
Then, in the state championship game against Monroe City, the Irish built a 21-0 advantage before halftime and won 28-0. The Irish recovered four fumbles and intercepted three passes, including two by Cernech, who also threw three TD passes – two to Stewart.
“We just had the mentality,” Cernech said, “that it was ours and there was no way we were going to let them take it from us.”
Football Kickoff Luncheon presented by Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company
When: 11 a.m. Monday, October 16
Where: University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center
Inductees: Former University of Missouri quarterback Brad Smith, Missouri State University coach Jesse Branch, Waynesville High School coach Rick Vernon as well as two state championship high school football teams – 1981 Greenwood Laboratory and 1997 Springfield Catholic.
Elite 11 honorees: Shannon Crouch (Seneca High School/Pittsburg State University), Mitch Espy (Marshfield High School/Missouri State), Mikael Cooper-Falls (Hillcrest High School/Missouri State), Jacob Hamon (Branson High School/Evangel University), Fred Harle (Raytown High School/Missouri State), Ryan Howerton (Lebanon High School/Lindenwood University/Mizzou), Shem Johnson (Parkview High School/Benedictine College/Indoor Football League), Eric Ramsey (Warsaw High School/Missouri Western University), Nick Smart (Marionville/Southwest Baptist University), Matt Wehner (Lebanon High School/Missouri Southern) and Rodney Witt (Ava High School/Missouri State).
Tickets: Sponsorship tables of eight, which include an autographed print and special recognition in the printed program, are $400. A head table ticket is $100, and an individual ticket is $40. Numerous sponsorships also are available, including congratulatory ads.
Our number: 417-889-3100