BERLIN CENTER - Prior to a state semifinal run in 2011, the Western Reserve football program had just one season of double-digit wins.
Rev. Russ Libb, the team chaplain, has been through a few 3-7 seasons, a lot of 1-9s and even the dreaded winless campaign.
"I've seen it all," Libb said. "This is much better, for sure."
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
Western Reserve coach Andy Hake, right, shows quarterback Nick Allison proper form during practice early Saturday morning at Western Reserve High School’s field. Saturday was the first day players could use full pads.
The Blue Devils are the only team in the Mahoning Valley to tally at least nine wins in each of the past four seasons. For the past five seasons, since coach Andy Hake arrived, they've also had one of the most unique traditions in the region.
Each year, the Saturday of the first week of two-a-days, marks the first day of hitting in full pads. So while most players across the Mahoning Valley rested up on Friday night into Saturday morning, Western Reserve took the Ohio State High School Athletic Association literally.
The Blue Devils began their hitting at midnight on Saturday in front of about 300 fans at the stadium in Berlin Center.
"These people are insane," Libb said. "They should be back in bed. I'd be home hugging the wife, too, but this is just a great thing for the team."
Western Reserve has had its version of midnight madness, which lasted from 12 a.m. until shortly after 2 a.m. beginning in 2009. It really is a whole day event as the team reports to practice at the normal 8 a.m. - they'll go for a double practice, go swimming at the park, see a movie, eat at Buffalo Wild Wings, digest, relax, then put the pads on for drills and a scrimmage.
"It's probably one of the best things for the team," said sophomore running back Brian Benyo. "We get real close."
Senior Dan Rosati has been a three-year starter and marks this opening day on his calendar each year.
"It's been a very strong tradition," he said. "We actually look forward to this. Obviously, because it's the first day of hard hitting but because it's at midnight. It did feel so good to really play what felt like a real football game.
"The seniors try to influence the young guys to hit because that's what Division VI and now VII is all about. If you can out-hit someone and be tougher than them, you're out-powering talent."
First-year principal Doug McGlynn, a former administrator at Austintown Fitch High School, has been amazed at the passion of the citizens in the small farming community in southwestern Mahoning County.
"They told me there'd be a lot of people here," said McGlynn, uncle of Indianapolis Colts lineman Mike McGlynn. "They just love Andy Hake. The short time that I've been by at a practice, they just go so hard for Andy. Everybody is so passionate.
"They have a great football tradition and Andy has just upped that. It's incredible. this place is packed on Friday nights now."
Hake, a Mineral Ridge graduate, had seen this idea of a midnight practice carried out at other schools. When he got the reigns of the program, his first head coaching stint, he figured it would be a hit with the kids.
"I love it, the coaches love it and the players love it," Hake said.
Added Benyo, "It's crazy because you're tired, but wide awake at the same time. It's first day of hitting, so it's crazy."
The Blue-White scrimmage technically ended in a 6-6 tie, though the clock wasn't running, some plays were halted in the middle and many different down and yardage situations were alternated. Running back Dan Zilke broke a few rushes for 10 or more yards and quarterback Nick Allison unleashed three successful deep balls.
But a freshman, Jeep DiCioccio, pulled off the headliner.
He picked off a pass in the end zone and returned it 100 yards for a score. He nearly got caught by a pair of veteran defensive backs, but he burned the midnight oil and slipped across the goal line untouched.
"I looked over my shoulder and they had a good angle but I was just a little bit quicker," DiCioccio said. "That was just great. I never expected it, because it was my first one ever. I just wanted to hustle for my team because they gave so much tonight."
The best part about it - there's 20 more days to hit, hustle and hurdle their way to opening day.