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A coaching masterpiece

Trumbull County has been blessed with a number of high school football coaching legends.

In two different eras, Tony Napolet molded Warren John F. Kennedy into a football powerhouse. Andy Golubic Jr. lost just 31 of the 135 games he coached at McDonald. Bill Bohren is one of 17 coaches in Ohio history to log 300 career wins. Niles’ 48-game unbeaten streak which included a pair of state titles earned Tony Mason “Coach of the Century” honors in a 1999 Tribune Chronicle poll.

Phil Annarella’s resume ranks right up there with the best of the best. The Ohio High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer earned his stripes with a career record of 246-146-3. His resume includes playoff-caliber success at Warren Western Reserve, Warren G. Harding, Niles and Austintown Fitch.

Yet it was Annarella’s coaching masterpiece during the winter, spring and summer months of 1990 which will forever cement his legendary status.

True, Annarella led Harding to a perfect 14-0 record and a Division I state championship in the fall of that year.

Still, if it weren’t for Annarella’s guidance and wisdom in the months leading up to the season, there’s no telling how things may have turned out.

In November of 1989, the Warren G. Harding Panthers and Warren Western Reserve Raiders met at Mollenkopf Stadium on a Saturday afternoon in front of a sellout crowd. The game marked the end of a 23-year series that many area sports fans acknowledge to be the most heated rivalry in the history of Mahoning Valley athletics.

A Warren community which was otherwise united 51 weeks of the year was annually torn apart in the week leading up to season-ending gridiron showdown.

It wasn’t just Panthers versus Raiders. It was East Side versus West Side. It was family versus family, friend versus friend. And it wasn’t so much a friendly football rivalry as it was a bitter cultural battle. The established east side school with its rich history seemingly looked down upon the upstart west side school and its followers.

The West Siders played and cheered with a chip on their shoulders.

The resentment was real.

Then, three short months following that final meeting between the two bitter rivals, Annarella was assigned the task of bringing the two sides together as one. In January of 1990, Annarella – who had coached at WWR from 1981-1989 – was named head coach of what would become the Warren G. Harding Raiders football program.

Just like that, heated adversaries were expected to become trusted teammates.

The consolidation of the two schools brought with it fiery debates – some which linger to this day – regarding school colors, mascots and the name of the school itself. For a time, it appeared as though the merger would produce disastrous results on the gridiron and within the halls of WGH.

Almost immediately, Annarella was able to bring teenage adversaries together, who in turn showed the rest of the community that a unified future was a better option than division over past differences.

Looking back, it’s almost impossible to imagine there was a man better fit for the job.

As was his nature, Annarella deflected the credit toward the players. He once said of disputes surrounding the consolidation, “It was a crazy time, the adults in this town acted like children, but luckily for me, the children acted like adults.”

That may be true, but it was likely Annarella’s presence which spurred the camaraderie among the players. Within weeks after Annarella’s hiring, former adversaries had formed a bond rather than a mutiny. They were ready to fight for each other rather than against each other.

Such a change doesn’t happen overnight without the guidance of a Hall of Fame coach who also happens to be a Hall of Fame human being.

Annarella’s only mistake of the 1990 season may have been how easy he made it all look. Far too many Warren fans thought the championship season was a blueprint for further success. Surely the consolidation of two football powers would create perennial state title-caliber teams.

Warren has since produced some exceptionally-talented teams (the early 2000s come to mind) guided by Hall of Fame coaches (Thom McDaniels, for instance). The fact that the school hasn’t since produced a state championship doesn’t diminish its accomplishments since 1990, but rather it sheds a spotlight on just how difficult it is to win a title.

True, the ’90 team was loaded with talent. It also faced obstacles and distractions never before or since encountered by a Warren team. Annarella proved to be the perfect man to help a group of teenagers overcome those barriers en route to a historic football season.

Movies have since been made which tell the tales of high school athletes coming from different backgrounds and different cultures to unexpectedly form a bond and achieve success. In 1990, Annarella and the Warren G. Harding Raiders wrote the script.

Coaches often suggest that champions are made in the off-season.

That has never been more true than in 1990 at Warren G. Harding High School.

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