WEST CHESTER — As the game clock struck zero and players exited on separate sides of the field, there was no handshake line Friday night at Lakota West High School.
Instead, as a coronavirus precaution, the Lakota West Firebirds and the St. Xavier Bombers faced each other from their respective sidelines and lifted their helmets high in the air, waving them as a salute.
Welcome to football in the era of a pandemic.
The two teams ushered in that new age and the return of high school sports with a scrimmage, won 28-17 by the Firebirds. The game does not count toward either team’s win/loss record and served as a tune-up contest before the regular season starts next week.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine did not give high schools the official go-ahead to play until last Tuesday.
“(It was) weird,” Lakota West head coach Tom Bolden said. “I mean, limited number of fans, you’re wearing a mask, you’re doing the best you can. It’s just, we’re in a weird time. There’s no question about it, but hey, we’re playing football.”
Before the game, Bolden took a microphone to midfield and asked all fans in attendance to wear their masks and stay socially distanced. Firebird Stadium was at roughly 15% capacity.
“I was really impressed with how our fans and (St. X) fans came in, and it was awesome,” Bolden said. “All things considered, with the world we’re in right now, it was a beautiful night.”
After both teams’ opening drives stalled within 10 yards of reaching the end zone, the Bombers got hot and rattled off 17 straight points.
Their scoring began with a 42-yard field goal by junior kicker Mason Rohmiller and continued with two touchdown strikes from junior quarterback Brogan McCaughey.
Then, as both teams worked their substitutions into the game, momentum switched.
Sophomore quarterback Mitch Bolden connected on a 76-yard touchdown pass to put the Firebirds on the board midway through the third quarter. Senior Caleb Rao created another big play, sprinting 91 yards to paydirt and cutting the Firebirds’ deficit to 17-14 before the end of the period.
In the fourth, the Lakota West defense stifled St. X, and Rao, now at quarterback, made some more magic. He tossed a 35-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Isaiah Winters to give the Firebirds the lead.
Senior running back Josh Brogden added a 1-yard rushing score for good measure, and that was that.
It was a tale of two very different halves.
“We were able to move the ball, did some things good but had some mental mistakes that cost us here and there,” Bolden said. “It was great for us, and that’s why I got the scrimmage. The tempo (the Bombers) play with and all the motions and the shifts and things like that, it’s good for us to see that stuff. And you know, defensively, they’re going to be in the right spot and things like that. So it’s a great, great scrimmage for us, and (St. X head coach Steve Specht) would tell you the same thing. So we did a lot of good things and did some bad things, and I know this — we got a lot better from this scrimmage, and St. X did, as well.”
Next Friday, Bolden and his Firebirds head to Colerain — a familiar place. Bolden attended the school and then coached there for more than a decade before joining Lakota West after the 2018 season.
“I’m going to walk in there, and hopefully I don’t walk over toward the other sideline,” Bolden said. “For all those years I spent on that side, it’s going to be a different view, for sure. And I love those kids dearly. That senior class, I was there with them. So it’s going to be different … But these are my guys here, and we’re on a mission.”
The Bombers open the season next Saturday in Brownsburg, Indiana, where their game will be nationally televised.