The people in Cleveland were more than content when the Indians lost the 1995 World Series to the Atlanta Braves, because it had been 41 years since their baseball team had last been to the Fall Classic.
Fans also had no issue with the Cavaliers being swept in the 2007 finals, because their basketball team had never gotten that far and superstar LeBron James was only in his fourth NBA season.
The fans knew those teams would return and finish the job in the near future … right?
But you can’t fault Lorain County football fans for thinking that it was this year or bust for the Avon Eagles to win a high school football state championship.
This team won’t be back next season.
Gone will be quarterback Justin O’Rourke and his 3,000 passing yards and 40 touchdowns. Gone will be wide receiver Matt Eckhardt and his 75 catches, 1,300 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. Gone will be linebackers Matt Tomlin and Cory Furnas and their triple-digit tackles.
But for those who know the Eagles program intimately, they realize the person most important to the team’s future success will be returning — head coach Mike Elder.
“That guy over there, he’s more than just a coach,” senior Tyler Lance said with a nod toward Elder after Avon’s 42-28 loss to Trotwood-Madison in the Division II final. “He’s my second dad, he’s my role model … I look to him for everything and I know my 83 brothers do, too. As long as Coach Elder is the head coach of the Avon Eagles, I have 100 percent trust in them.
“That’s why I’m going to miss it so much … he’s the most amazing guy I’ve ever met.”
It’s hard to find an Avon player who would say otherwise. It’s hard to find an Eagles fan that wouldn’t slap Elder on the back and pick up his tab if they came upon him at a local restaurant. It’s hard to find anyone with a knowledge of Lorain County football who doesn’t respect what Elder’s done at Avon and how he’s done it.
Elder came in and made a good program great. He has nearly septupled the city’s youth program participants in the past four years. He has won 80 percent of his games during his five seasons at Avon. He has led the Eagles to the postseason three times — more than doubling the school’s total playoff appearances.
“I give it all to Coach Elder,” Furnas said. “He came into this program and made us winners. We came out (of our four years) with a ridiculous amount of wins. It’s really our entire coaching staff — they are the reason we got this far.”
“He’s left his mark on Avon football,” Eckhardt said. “He’s shown that Avon’s not just small-town football anymore. We’re going to be a powerhouse in Division II for a time to come.”
Elder has bred success by creating a culture of winning in Avon. But that’s not the only reason the team needs him at the helm. Elder showed time and again during the Eagles’ run to Friday night’s championship game that he also brings a ton of value to the sideline.
After several big-play calls paid off in a win over Aurora in the state semifinal last weekend, Elder caught the Rams off guard during several key moments of the championship game to keep Avon close. He twice called for a hook-and-ladder play — the first netting 43 yards and leading to a touchdown right before halftime — and also came up big with an onside kick in the third quarter that led to a touchdown and pulled the Eagles within seven.
“My mind-set (when making the calls) is to give these kids an opportunity to win,” Elder said. “There’s not one football game as a coach that I won’t look back on and regret certain play calls and decisions we made. But at the end of the day, we needed to do that to get back in the game. We are going to pull out all the stops and do whatever we need to.
“The play right before the half, on the hook-and-ladder, was a huge play in this football game — it gave us hope right before halftime.”
The plays work because the players buy into the game plan, tirelessly practice the execution and have complete trust in Elder when he sends the call to the huddle. They also like that their leader takes chances.
“He’s got guts,” junior Ralph Smith said. “We all love him.”
It’s why the outgoing players are just as excited about next season as Smith and the rest of the underclassmen.
Furnas said the Avon junior varsity went undefeated and he thinks that group will lead the varsity to some big wins. O’Rourke thinks this year’s team learned from the 2008 run to the regional final that his brother Ryan helped lead. Eckhardt believes this year’s seniors did the same.
“I think this is going to give a lot of people hope and inspiration to come out next year and work even harder than we did,” Eckhardt said. “And try to win this.”
Many think a state title would be a tall order with the graduation damage the Eagles will suffer this summer. Those close to the program exude confidence. Elder doesn’t seem worried at all.
“I think this game is about relationships,” he said. “I may not be the smartest coach, but I love these guys. I’m hard on them, but that’s what families do — I’m hard on my own kids.
“If we would have won this football game, I wouldn’t have been one bit prouder of this football team than I am right now.”
Those words and this season should be more than enough to keep the city of Avon smiling for awhile.
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or email@example.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.