You leave a major-metropolitan area and head south. As the miles go by one-by-one you begin to see gently rolling terrain and fields planted with corn, soybeans or maybe some freshly chopped hay.
As you near town it is hard to decide if this is the 1950s or 2014. The streets are lined with trees and World War II era houses. Kids ride their bikes in the neighborhood or spend the summer in the local park playing basketball or hanging out by the local pool. There is always a fast-pitch softball tournament going on and neighborhoods rotate having block parties. It’s the kind of town which seems to remind people of a simpler time and place, right up to the point where one of those neighborhoods butt up against the local CVS, McDonalds or Taco Bell.
It’s not quite Mayberry, but it’s not metro-Atlanta either. It’s Orrville, Ohio, population 8,395, and I call it home.
There are two major claims to fame from Orrville — the first, you see at the town limits on Highway 57 when you pass the big sign that says it is the proud home of former Indiana and U.S. Olympic basketball coach Bobby Knight.
The second you learn about mere blocks later when you begin to pass the J.M. Smucker Company (and with a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good), which takes up much of the downtown area.
And, it seems, after spending the last week there, there were two prevalent topics of conversation — work, in which more than half the town is making your favorite jelly, jam, peanut butter (Jif), coffee (Folgers), shortening (Crisco) or any of the other multitude of products that line store shelves. (Go ahead, pick up the jar of grape jelly in your refrigerator. On the back of the label — J.M. Smucker Co., Orrville, Ohio, 44667. See, I told you so). The other topic is sports.
Orrville actually has a couple of ties to the Southeastern Conference. Current LSU football coach Les Miles grew up in Elyria, Ohio, and when he was in school, he would come in the summer and play in some of those fast pitch softball tournaments at Orr Park. The other had a more direct reflection on the football field. Former Florida coach Ron Zook began his coaching career as a defensive backs coach for Orrville High School in 1976, but college football does not resonate in the area like it does in Cobb County.
Most people in this part of northern Ohio are Ohio State fans. They don’t need to pay attention to things like SEC Media Days to get a feel for each team in the conference may fare this season. They just want to know when the Buckeyes play Michigan.
And, while the return of LeBron James to the Cavaliers and the circus that is “Johnny Football” with the Browns is in full swing and holding people’s interest, the most important thing Orrville sports fans want to know, like many of the fans in Cobb County, is how well their high school football team is going to play this upcoming season.
In fact, while I was walking around my old high school this week, it dawned on me that the sports programs in Orrville would fit in well in Cobb County. Football has always come first, but other sports on campus always seem to have more success. In Orrville’s case, basketball has always been its calling card — and not just because of Coach Knight.
When I attended, the program always seemed to advance to the region championship game (the Sweet 16) but lose to a private school like Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (the then-future high school of LeBron James).
Since then, Orrville has won three basketball state championships — 1992, ‘95 and ‘96. And, it is the only program in Ohio High School Athletic Association history to win back-to-back state titles, and have the second come in a higher classification.
When I was a junior in 1986, the football team advanced to the state championship game. It played in Ohio Stadium, also known as the Horseshoe, on the campus of Ohio State University — and lost.
It wasn’t until 1998 when Orrville, quarterbacked by future Ohio State quarterback Justin Zwick, won a state championship in football.
Until 2011, it remained the only football state championship in Wayne County history.
However, this year, the fans in Orrville aren’t expecting a state championship. Last year’s squad is coming off a 1-9 season, arguably the worst showing in the program’s 111-year history. And many of those fans are still complaining about the year-old Sprint Turf field the school installed — not because of the cost, but because heading into its second year of use, the team has yet to win on its new field.
But hope springs eternal. While I was there I heard about the players that would bring the team back to prominence.
Just like the players at Marietta, Allatoona, McEachern, Pope and all across Cobb County, those in Orrville were in the weight room, participating in 7-on-7s, and doing the necessary summer work that helps to make those lifelong memories in the fall.
It just proves no matter where you go, high school sports form the ties that make wherever you live, a home.
John Bednarowski is the sports editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org