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From rivals to teammates: Harding/Reserve merger and the 1990 state championship season

Tribune file photo. Former Warren G. Harding football coach Phil Annarella is shown talking to the 1990 Riaders football team after winning the state title over Cincinnati Princeton at the Akron Rubber Bowl.

WARREN — All big-time sports programs go through a major change at one point or another. Whether it’s building a new stadium or arena, hiring an influential coach to change the culture of the program, or in Warren’s case, merging two powerhouse programs into one.

In 1990, the Warren football program went through that major change.

After splitting into two schools in 1966 and then battling one another for 23 years as cross-town rivals, Western Reserve and Harding reconsolidated.

Given existing bad blood between the programs, many factors existed that could have sent the merged program into a tailspin.

It ranged from elimination of duplicate staffing, to plans for buildings, choosing a new school mascot and even team colors.

But, on the football field, there was a chance for something special.

COMING TOGETHER

The Harding Panthers had gone 3-5 the year before the merger, while Western Reserve had went 8-1, qualified for the playoffs and lost to Cleveland St. Ignatius in the first round.

The beginning of the 1990 football season was more than two arch-rivals merging into one football team. It meant that two prideful communities each would sacrifice something in order to come together.

What resulted was one of the most memorable seasons in Warren’s history.

The consolidated team went undefeated to win Warren’s first playoff-era state championship since Harding defeated Upper Arlington 41-8 at the Akron Rubber Bowl in 1974.

The late Phil Annarella, who coached the Raiders, had told the Tribune Chronicle in 2015, looking back, he didn’t know how they did what they did. Annarella died in 2019.

“There were so many committees I served on. I don’t think I was ever home,” Annarella had said. “Committees over the colors, the mascot, committees in general about how to approach the community with this new one school.”

Each school and community wanted to keep its own identity. The Raiders wanted to stay gold and white. The Panthers wanted to keep the original black and red. Each community wanted to keep its own mascot as well.

The final decision was made to go with the Raiders mascot and colors, but the students would go to school at Harding. Then, on top of all the other decisions being made, there was the question of who would be the head coach of the football team.

Frank Thomas had been the head coach at Harding since 1982 and had earned an overall record of 35-43 with just three winning seasons in that time. He was two years removed from his best season in 1988, which concluded in a 7-3 record.

Annarella had been leading the Raiders since 1981 and had only one losing season — his first year at Reserve — in which the Raiders went 2-7-1. After that, the Raiders recorded a winning record in seven of the next eight seasons, including a 10-2 season in 1988.

Annarella was the final choice and as it turned out, he might have been the perfect man for a job that was a lot more than just coaching football.

“He had the right attitude and he was tough, but he loved the kids,” said lineman LeShun Daniels, who was a junior that season and went on to play football at Ohio State. “I think it prepared me for my next steps in college because he always told me that no one is going to give me anything, so I had to go and work for it. He really instilled that into the team and into his players. If you had that attitude you could accomplish anything. He was definitely the right guy, for that time, to put the team together.”

DEEP AND TALENTED

Once all the off-the-field questions were answered, it was time for the two teams to merge. They were filled with star athletes like Daniels, fellow lineman Korey Stringer, who also went on to play at Ohio State, and star wide receiver Omarr Provitt, who has been mentioned alongside the likes of Hall of Famer Paul Warfield as one of the best receivers in Warren history, to come together as one team.

“I think we just rallied together,” Daniels said. “We had that competition in camp, but once we were together, the main goal was winning each week. That’s really all we wanted to do, was put forward the best team possible and just go out there and whoop as many teams as we could.”

That’s not to say it was easy. Before the onfield product could take shape Annarella had to find a way to reduce two coaching staffs and two rosters into one team. Players would have to be cut.

Current Warren G. Harding football coach Steve Arnold was the freshman coach at the time. Looking back, he said, given the difficult situation, the outcome was amazing.

“For him to get the kids to buy in was big time,” Arnold said. “Obviously the talent was there on both sides, but you still had jealousy. You had guys that started at Reserve and guys that started at Harding, and they thought they should’ve started. Then guys accepted their roles and the coaching staff as well. That was a hard job for coach Annarella because there were some coaches that he didn’t keep from either side.”

There were a myriad of ways that Annarella could’ve brought the team together that year, but Daniels said he took the approach of simply telling the team to represent the city they were from.

They had all played together in Warren youth leagues, so why not do it again on the biggest stage of high school football.

“He rallied us around being Warren kids,” Daniels said. “You gotta go out there and work hard and earn your respect. He kept a straight line too, if you weren’t doing what you were supposed to do, at times he would sit you down or get on you, and I think they just put together a great staff. He just said, ‘Hey, we’re all from the same community, we’re all trying to win a state championship,’ and we all kind of rallied around that.”

THE STORYBOOK SEASON

The newly formed Raiders team went 14-0, defeating Cincinnati Princeton 28-21 in the state championship game at the Akron Rubber Bowl. They allowed double figures to be scored against them in only six of 14 games and never allowed more than 22.

An injury to starting quarterback Chris Ensign in the Week six 34-15 victory over Canton McKinley threw a small hitch into the season, but Annarella had the luxury of two starting-caliber quarterbacks on his roster.

Chauncey Coleman seamlessly slotted into the starting role, and three weeks later led the Raiders to a 20-14 win over Fitch. He also helped the Raiders overcome a halftime deficit against Howland to earn a 21-9 victory in the regular season finale.

Coleman went on to lead the Raiders to victory in the first round of the playoffs, a 23-7 win over Boardman at Niles’ Bo Rein Stadium. He also received the start in Harding’s second round matchup against Fitch, but a healthy Ensign entered the game early to lead the Raiders to a 31-6 win and led the team the rest of the way through the playoffs.

The final two games of their season were more of a challenge as the Raiders trailed Sandusky 14-0 in the semifinals at the Akron Rubber Bowl before scoring 27 straight points to earn a trip to the state championship game, which is where Provitt went on to make a name for himself.

He caught five passes for 187 yards, including touchdown catches of 84 and 55 yards, which played a big part in Ensign’s 236 passing yard performance as the Raiders took a 28-7 halftime lead.

The Raiders held that lead through the rest of the game, only allowing Princeton to score with 19 seconds remaining in the game.

It preserved a special season for the Raiders and the Warren community as a whole. Arnold still remembers what he said to Annarella after the Raiders brought home the title.

“I told him after we won the state championship that year, I go ‘Coach, that’s probably the worst thing that could have happened,'” Arnold said with a laugh. “‘You went 14-0 in the first year and now everyone thinks you’re going to go 14-0 every year.'”

Annarella went on to lead the Raiders for the next five years, garnering an overall record of 51-23 and never recorded a losing season.

gmacafee@tribtoday.com

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