MIAMI - Playing for the college national football title with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish seemed far-fetched when Dan McCarthy followed family members to South Bend in 2008.
The wait was much shorter for Austintown Fitch star running back Will Mahone.
Their decisions will pay dividends tonight when the Irish pit their 12-0 record against defending national champ Alabama's 12-1 mark in Miami's Sun Life Stadium.
Tribune Chronicle / Larry Ringler
Austintown Fitch graduate Will Mahone, left, and Cardinal Mooney graduate Dan McCarthy are on the undefeated Notre Dame team vying for a national championship tonight.
The Irish were coming off a 3-9 record in 2007 - Charlie Weiss' last season as head coach - when McCarthy ended a stellar high school football career at Cardinal Mooney.
He decided to follow a family tradition dating back to grandfather, Jack Mayo, and continued with brother Kyle McCarthy by attending Notre Dame. He won approval for a fifth year because he didn't play as a freshman.
"We were at rock-bottom. It's been quite a transformation," McCarthy said Saturday during players press conferences at the stadium. "Everyone bought into one ideology. We're a close-knit group."
The arrival of Brian Kelly as head turned the tide. Kelly has a 28-10 record in his third year, the best winning percentage since East Liverpool's Lou Holtz for the first three years. Holtz also won the storied school's last national title.
Steady improvement under Kelly had players thinking national title game by the time Mahone joined last summer.
"There was a lot of talk about how things were different," said the red-shirt freshman, making him eligible for a fifth season.
Mahone said his career at Fitch helped prepare him for the high-pressure atmosphere at Notre Dame.
"We played against good competition, and Coach (Phil) Annarella was great at building character on the team," he said.
Mahone won't see any action Monday. McCarthy will fill his special team role on punts and kickoffs.
Both will have fans in the stands. McCarthy said about 30 family and friends plan to attend the game, while Mahone said his mother, Celia, will watch in person.
Both naturally hope their fans will leave the stadium happy.
"I can't predict the game. I just hope we're holding the crystal ball and the end," McCarthy said.
Mahone ventured a Notre Dame win in a close game.
"I see it close, 17-14, 24-21. However we get the win, we'll take it," he said, adding, "It's a great experience. I've never been part of anything like it."