LIMA – Before Lima Senior embarks on its 2016 football journey, the Spartans will be recognizing the 1996 state championship team that many consider the original “family,” Friday night.
“It was kind of ironic they used family as their slogan the last couple of years because that is how we felt we were that year,” said Jim Barker, who played middle linebacker for the Spartans in that magical season 20 years ago. “We had a swagger about us because we were such a tight knit group and had a lot of confidence.”
Both Terrell Thomas, who was a defensive back for the Spartans, and Jim Morris, the quarterback on the team, both echoed their teammates’ sentiment and the two said from the beginning the team felt the 1996 season was going to be special.
“It was a brotherhood. A family,” Thomas said.
Thomas said under the guidance of head coach Leonard Rush, the Spartans reported to preseason with three goals: going undefeated at home, winning the Greater Miami Conference and making it to state. Even though they had posted back-to-back 6-4 seasons prior to 1996, Thomas said he knew this team was determined and focused after the team, the previous two seasons, did not reach their full potential.
Barker remembers when Rush brought in an aerobics instructor during the off season to help them get into shape. He said this team was all-in from the beginning and this was a prime example of how committed they were to Rush and winning.
Thomas added after aerobics it was weightlifting with the coaching staff and upperclassmen where the team continued to bond.
Because he was a transfer from Lima Central Catholic before his senior year, Barker did not know what he was getting into, but said once he joined he knew this was a special group on the verge of achieving big things.
Even before the season began, the team chemistry was already in place.
“I think our practices were more memorable than some games,” Thomas said. “We had some memorable practices. A lot of people don’t know but we had a very playful group. We liked to clown around a lot. We had a bunch of laughs. Don’t get me wrong. We were brothers, and like a family had our fights but at the end of the day come Friday we buckled up.”
Thomas added that the Spartans were so good because not only did they have size and strength but were athletic and deep and that only a handful of players went both ways minus some small exceptions such as Barker playing fullback.
With a little chip on their shoulder and a wealth of talent, the Spartans entered the season ready to make history.
An early loss to Massillon in the second week of the season could easily have derailed the Spartans, but all three said because of the excellent coaching staff and the positive attitude the team possessed, it did little to deter Lima Senior from its main goals.
“We got chewed out nicely and it left a bad taste in our mouth,” Thomas said. “But we didn’t let it hurt us.”
The Spartans continued their march through the rest of the regular season and while they were rarely tested, there was a point in the season where things got a little tenuous.
Coming off a close 9-7 win over Cincinnati Sycamore, Thomas said Rush was getting a little perturbed with the team’s clowning around and made his feelings known prior to the Hamilton game in week five. But after the Spartans demolished Hamilton 31-3, Thomas said Rush never questioned the team’s playful nature again.
“The Hamilton game was the turning point for us,” Morris said. “We really beat them pretty bad and got a complete effort from everyone on the team. All three phases, offense, defense and special teams, really clicked that game.”
Even though the Spartans had just one loss, the Spartans just slipped into the playoffs because back then only the top four teams in the region got into the playoffs, unlike the eight who make it today.
As one of the lowest ranked teams not many gave the Spartans a chance, especially with perennial state qualifiers in their way, and were considered underdogs in each of their playoff games.
The three players all said they never thought of themselves as underdogs.
“Respect is earned not given and we had to take ours,” Thomas said. “Even after winning the GMC and going to the playoffs, people said ‘They still said they can’t beat Troy. They can’t beat Elder.’”
But that is exactly what the Spartans did. They opened the postseason with a 24-7 win over Toledo St. John’s, followed by a narrow 13-10 victory over Troy and then in the state semifinal, edged Elder, 21-14.
In the state championship game, the Spartans would face Cleveland St. Ignatius which had won the Division I state title seven of the last nine years leading up to the game against Lima Senior.
Barker said it was the proverbial David vs. Goliath match up but the Spartans rose to the challenge. However, Barker, like his teammates, said they went into the game knowing they could bring home the state title.
“We were confident,” Morris said. “We were a confident team and after the schedule we played we did not shy away from any opponent.”
Thomas added, “Going into it we knew it was going to be a dogfight. It was a gut check. But now it was time to put Lima on the map. We had the opportunity to make history.”
Even though the Spartans fell behind early, Lima Senior rallied to produce a 38-30 win that permanently etched that team’s name in the history of Lima sports.
Barker said any time they talk about the best sports moments in the history of Lima this one is always at the top and remembers how big a story it was and still is.”
“I can’t go a month without someone bringing up the state championship,” Morris said. “It is hard to believe it was 20 years ago. But anytime we get together with the players it seems like it was just yesterday. This is something that lasts a lifetime.”
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-468 or on twitter at @JoseNogueras1