Michael D. Clark reports:
Thousands will converge tonight in West Chester Township to once again form the largest prep game crowd of the year in Butler County and one of the biggest in Southwest Ohio.
The fan count will be high – more than 8,000 – and stakes higher than usual – possible berths in the state football playoffs for this year’s rivalry clash between Lakota West and Lakota East high schools.
And thanks to a popular local food drive, the impact of “The Game” in Butler County will reverberate far beyond the gridiron.
But former Lakota athletic director and football coach Stu Eversole remembers when the “fans” watching the old, tiny high school team included a herd of cows.
“And there were more cows than players!” chuckles Eversole, who was barely able to fill a football squad roster in the early 1970s at the former Lakota High School, located across from a cow pasture.
“We used to joke that we always practiced before a standing-room-only crowd. They would stand at the fence and moo at us,” he recalls from those days when Lakota was mostly rural and spread wide throughout largely undeveloped West Chester and Liberty townships.
Friday night game crowds back then weren’t much bigger.
Since, both townships have exploded with more than 100,000 residents to become two of the fastest-growing areas in Ohio.
“It’s amazing to see all the growth that we’ve had in the district and around the game. The game has become Butler County’s football version of Ohio State and Michigan,” says Eversole, who is retired but works as an athletics consultant for the 16,800-student district – the eighth-largest in the state and second-largest in Southwest Ohio.
Schools opened doors on same day
Booming expansion in the 1990s led Lakota to build two identical high schools – Lakota West in West Chester Township and Lakota East in Liberty Township – both opening their doors on the same day in 1997.
Lakota officials downplay the rivalry, preferring to use the annual game as a showcase of unity for the community.
Until 2008, both high schools had a single freshman feeder school designed to intermix students from both townships who would soon split to attend their area high school.
But continued enrollment jumps forced the opening that year of a separate freshman school feeder for Lakota East High School.
Despite the change, when East and West boys and girls sports teams clash, it’s more friendly than not.
“The game and the spirit week leading up to it is a showcase of all things Lakota,” says Lakota East Principal Suzanna Davis.
This week has featured spirit dress up days, pep rallies, online competitions for best school spirit photos and most important – for needy residents – the year’s biggest food drive conducted through Lakota’s 22 schools.
Reach Out Lakota, a local charitable community group, receives about 80 percent of its total annual food donations from Lakota school drives, says Tim Harmon, food inventory coordinator for the group.
“It’s amazing what this community does around this game. And the donations make all the school kids feel like they are part of it all,” Harmon says.
His group hopes to collect more than 19,000 pounds of food for the low-income families living among the more than 100,000 residents in the two townships.
The two high schools frenetically compete to collect the most food for the needy.
“It’s a cool competition,” says Lakota East senior Aurora Oliva “and it gets a lot of students involved in helping the community.”
Lakota East parent Carol Shannon agrees.
“Our family has already bagged some food items. It’s a good program and it helps teach the students about how community is important and they can all be involved,” says Shannon, who has two children in Lakota Schools.
Andi Huesman, mother of a Lakota West sophomore, says the drive reminds all students “it’s not just about them.”
“Even though Lakota has grown so much over the years, there is still a small-town feel to it – especially during this week,” Huesman says.
West senior Lizzie Wheatley proudly reports that her homeroom class raised $230 for a shopping trip to the local Kroger to buy food for the drive.
“It puts a light on the problems of needy people, and that’s a good thing for all students to know,” she said.
Pep rally rocks Lakota West’s gym
Standing high in the stands of Lakota West’s gym – made rocking and raucous during a Thursday pep rally – Eversole watches and smiles at a spectacle he helped create and that grows larger with each passing year.
“It’s really neat how this has evolved over time,” he says.
Since it started in 1998, he says, district officials have crafted it into not so much “shootout at OK Corral,” but more of a “cooperative venture and community gathering.”
True, says Wheatley, a cheerleader for West.
“The relationship between the two schools is very friendly, and it’s all good fun,” she says.
Then, flashing a smile: “Unless we lose.”