For nearly six decades, football players from this tiny, rural school system, just across a wide stretch of the Great Miami River from steel-city Middletown, have laced up cleats for battle against gridiron opponents.
Madison High School’s first kick-off took place in 1960, and though the boys who stepped up and strapped it on to represent the community’s beloved “Mohawks” knew some successes — divisional championships, rivalry wins, winning records — they never had a season like this.
Regardless of what happens tonight, the battling Mohawks have already made Madison prep football history by making their first visit two weeks ago to the Ohio high school playoffs.
But so far — to the delight of delirious Mohawk fans — it’s not been a short playoff “visit.”
The team won its first two games in the state tournament as more than 3,000 students, school families, alumni, former players and other folks from the community packed the stands and out-shouted the opposition at both games.
“The community is buzzing,” said Madison Senior High School Principal Justin Smith.
Tonight will see a repeat of Mohawk fan pandemonium during the area’s regional title game — kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. at Beavercreek High School’s stadium in Greene County — as they take on West Jefferson High School.
A unique, electrical current of excitement is shooting through all of Madison Twp.
Nobody knows how long it will last, but like the team’s recently adopted motto referencing its long-shot prospects of going all the way to a Division V state championship, people in town confidently ask a single question: “Why not us?”
IN THE SCHOOL: A “GOOD CHAOS”
On the opposite side of the Great Miami River is 49,000-resident Middletown — whose own high school, despite its recent losing ways — has a long and storied record in Ohio football playoff success.
Despite the historic significance of Madison High’s first time in the state’s big football show, they are still an afterthought to some of the public and local sports media in spite of their two playoff wins.
Madison Twp. is an almost entirely rural bedroom community, whose school district enrollment of 1,500 is less than half the number of students in some other Butler County high school buildings.
Cincinnati’s WLW-AM radio sports news recently ran down a list of the few Southwest Ohio teams still competing in the playoffs and didn’t even mention Madison.
And the moniker of Madison doesn’t exactly jump out among Ohio’s 608 school systems when three other districts have the same name and perennial, Dayton-area sports power Trotwood-Madison is also in the playoffs.
But on Madison Twp.’s shores of the river a long-time, family owned drive-thru has posed the motivating question to thousands of drivers crossing the Ohio 122 bridge that connects downtown Middletown to the rolling hillsides of Madison Twp. just west of the city.
“Why not us?” asks a road-side marquee at Marion’s Grand Slam Drive-Thru.
Owner Matt Stephens — a former Mohawk football player and Madison Sports Hall of Famer whose son, Luke Cornele, is on the team — looks over his marquee and says it’s more bold statement than actual question for this rookie playoff team.
“The boys started that (motto) midway through the season and it’s kind of stuck. And I think that everybody that comes through the drive-thru is saying ‘why not us?’” said Stephens.
If sparsely populated Madison Twp. had a central “town” area, the football team would be the talk of it, he said.
Unprompted, customers bring up the team “every day, every minute, every second,” Stephens said.
When asked how far the Mohawk squad will go, his reply is instant: “All the way.”
Principal Smith has been in education long enough to know the sparks flying off a historic football season are lightning captured in a bottle. Any minor disruptions in school routines — the team and school marching band will parade through the K-12 single school building today — are to be embraced.
“At school, administrators call it ‘a good chaos’ right now because kids are excited because there is the buzz in the hallways,” said Smith, a Madison High School alum.
“You kind of want to pinch yourself … with football we’ve never been in this spot before. And I’ve really been impressed with the outpouring from the community. A lot of folks I haven’t seen in years have made it to some games. It seems like our crowds get bigger and bigger the further (in the playoffs) we have gone,” he said.
A.J. Huff, another alum and spokeswoman for Madison Schools, said it’s a unique time in the district’s history.
“The excitement in Madison right now is palpable. From our youngest elementary students up through multiple generations of Madison families, the success of this season has brought us all together,” she said.
“And it is an awesome sight to see so many staff members, our student body, alumni and community members come to not only watch our team play, but to experience the energy and camaraderie shared on a Friday night under those lights,” said Huff, who plans to be among the “Mohawk Strong” throng at tonight’s game.
Madison High senior Emily Phelps, whose brother Jake is an outside linebacker for the Mohawks, said “it’s so exciting to see how far the boys have come.”
“Just watching them do what they love makes our community and our school so proud of them,” she said. “It’s really awesome.”