WARREN HARDING RAIDERS McDaniels knows what it takes to be best
He'll guide the Raiders in the Division I state championship game tonight in Canton.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
WARREN -- Thom McDaniels has been in this situation before. He knows what it takes to be the best, to find success and nothing less.
It is a daunting challenge to reach that destination. But there's another part: how you react once you're there.
McDaniels, coach of the Warren Harding High football team, knows the importance of this. He stresses this.
As coach of Canton McKinley in 1997, McDaniels had to prepare his team to deal with a preseason No. 1 national ranking.
"We talked to our kids and made them aware of our ranking," McDaniels said. "We talked about how we had to embrace that, rather than be afraid of that. That team ran the table."
And won the state championship.
Fast forward five years. McDaniels is in his third season as coach at Harding, which hired him to improve the program, to find the students who wanted to sacrifice for the team.
The Raiders went 7-3 and 11-2 in McDaniels' first two seasons.
Entering tonight's Division I state championship game against Cincinnati Elder at Canton's Fawcett Stadium, Harding is 14-0 -- and on the verge of running the table.
Harding, which was ranked No. 1 throughout the Associated Press state poll this season, has been able to handle its success, as Canton McKinley did in 1997.
"When the AP poll came out, there was some notoriety," McDaniels said. "We talked to this group of kids about handling the notoriety and managing our success. From the first poll to the last poll we managed our success."
Harding must manage one more time.
Finishing the job
After a playoff run in which they have won each game by seven points or fewer, the Raiders feel their season won't be justified unless they beat Elder in the finale.
"It's our presence and poise, our understanding of the situation, our ability to focus on what we need to do late in the game when everything's against us," senior quarterback Mike Kokal said.
Harding earned the opportunity to play for the school's third state title by defeating some of Div. I's biggest powers -- Cleveland St. Ignatius (24-17), Lakewood St. Edward (18-16), Mentor (14-7) and Massillon (21-20 in overtime).
"We know we're not a team that is going to dominate another real good team," McDaniels said. "We're decent in all three phases of the game.
"The combination of being decent in all three phases means we're going to be in every game," he said. "Any given unit is capable of making plays in critical moments to help our cause."
Harding and Elder are meeting for the third straight season, having split the first two games.
Harding won 24-19 in Warren in 2000 and lost 24-14 last season in the Queen City.
"This has turned into a nice little rivalry, even though we're miles apart," Elder coach Doug Ramsey said. "It's neat how it's worked out and we're playing them again this year."