(Written by Javonte Anderson, staff writer for The Blade. Story originally published Aug. 24, 2018. Stryker head coach Justin Sonnenberg graduated from the University of Findlay in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science in education.)
STRYKER, Ohio – There’s something about Friday night lights.
The thud of fragile bodies crashing against the ground, the fretful cries of parents watching from the bleachers, the earth churning underneath the spiked cleats with every stride, every block, and every tackle.
There’s something about a group of young men collectively deciding to sacrifice for the sake of victory.
There’s purity in high school football – an innocence, vulnerability, and sanctity that erodes as the stakes become higher.
No money. No fame. Little glory.
Only a group of kids who covet the support of their community.
The community in Stryker now has a team of players to call its own.
After an 87-year hiatus, Stryker High School officials announced the reinstatement of the football program in 2016. Its first varsity game was Friday night as the Panthers welcomed Holgate High School to their home field in Williams County.
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but how does a town miss something it never had a chance to experience?
“For the majority of people in Stryker, it’s pretty exciting because it’s new to us,” Mayor Joey Beck said. “We’re not used to the Friday night lights. We’re more used to not having it.”
Stryker’s a small town. It’s barely a town, by definition a village. It stands alone, existing almost in obscurity.
Boxed in by crops, it feels isolated, where nothing but the occasional train rattling over the tracks breaks the rural silence.
The population hovers around 1,000. It’s less than a square mile in size with two traffic lights and four gas pumps.
And, for nearly nine decades, no football.
In Stryker, Friday night lights weren’t always a myth.
The Panthers were a formidable opponent in the early 1900s before the program folded in 1931.
Despite being few in numbers, the football program generated interest throughout the region, often appearing in newspapers across the country.
“This Stryker team has made quite a name for itself and its school this fall, and deserves a good deal of credit for its exceptional success,” a Nov. 26, 1914, issue of the Bryan Press reported after Stryker routed Waite High School 50-0.
“It appears to be far and away the strongest high school team in the section.”
The program’s most successful year came in 1917 when the team dominated larger schools, including shutout performances against Scott, Bryan, Defiance, and Napoleon en route to the undefeated season.
What exactly happened to Stryker’s football program after the 1931 season is a bit murkey.
The late Ernest Kenneth Gentit, a member of the 1931 team, offered an explanation during the 2003 local history panel discussion, according to a newsletter published by the local historical society.
“The reason we didn’t continue football the following year was we started the 1931 season with 16 players,” Mr. Gentit said. “One of them broke his collarbone in practice… so we were down to 15. Needless to say, we didn’t win any games.”
Another story from the Bryan Democrat in April 1932, blames the rising costs of the sport and the Great Depression.
Whatever the reason, that was that for more than 80 years. So why now for football’s return?
The district saw its enrollment steadily decline, partly because there wasn’t a football program, Superintendent Nate Johnson said.
Since the 2006-07 school year, the district’s enrollment gradually declined every year, losing 139 students in over a nine-year span, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
“Our discussions centered around how we could retain our kids,” Mr. Johnsons said.
“The idea behind it was to help retain our students because we’re surrounded by football schools. Academics were the top priority, but athletics was clearly important to some of our students.”
It’s the day before kickoff. The village is quiet. There are few outward signs of school spirit.
“It’s the calm before the storm,” head coach Justin Sonnenberg said.
He speaks with confidence. But his eyes tell a different tale.
He understands the uphill battle his team faces but refuses to speak doubt into existence.
“We’re not going to make excuses about numbers or experience,” he said. “We are working toward winning varsity football games. Make every team prove they’re better than us.”
There are 16 players on the team and one senior, with a combined zero years of varsity experience.
“We’re small but mighty,” Coach Sonnenberg said.
At the last practice before gameday, the team carries itself with a quiet confidence – no one more than junior wide receiver and cornerback Max Wonders.
He moves with aplomb; a swagger that can only come from within.
From the pale shimmer of his silver hoop earring to the jersey tucked underneath his shoulder pads showing off his washboard abs, his self-confidence is evident.
“I’m excited and confident,” he said. “We’ve been putting in the work to win a couple of games this year.”
As Thursday’s practice winds down, Coach Sonnenberg tries to ease any fear that may have crept over his players as the game nears.
“We’ve been working hard,” he said. “You’re bigger. You’re stronger. You’re meaner. You hit harder. All right?
“You’re ready for varsity football. And everybody’s going to know it after tomorrow night.”
Huddled in a circle, the teammates wrap their arms around one another.
They begin to sway gently like a mother cradling a newborn baby.
The chant grows louder.
“We ready! For y’all”
Their confidence is palpable. For a moment, if only at this moment, they have an unyielding belief in themselves.
“I’m pretty pumped,” said sophomore enter and defensive lineman Amos Sloan. “I’m ready go out and get a win.”
Friday night, the stands teemed with excited fans and alumni. Cheerleaders performed stunts, and the panther mascot mingled with the crowd. Everyone was enchanted with the pageantry that is Friday night football.
Joanie Bell, who has lived in Stryker for 26 years, overflowed with enthusiasm. She was th first person in line to enter the game.
“I’m so happy for this town,” she said.
“I’ve been waiting for this night for two years.”
Stryker competed valienatly throughout the night. The Panthers trailed Holgate by one point in the second quarter. As the game progressed, Holgate pulled away, ultimately defeating Stryker 57-14.
There’s nothing like Friday night lights: the agony of defeat, the sniffles echoing in the bleachers, and watching heartbroken kids fight to hold back tears as they realize one of life’s realities – that sometimes your best is not good enough.
There’s something about the lights. There’s something about a village that supports its hometown team, even after defeat, until the bitter end.
Contact Javonte Anderson at email@example.com, 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @JavonteA.