Things looked pretty bleak on Gulf Road and Poplar Street following the 1974 football season. Not only had Elyria Catholic just completed a winless season, it had been outscored 269-38.
But just two years and two coaches later, the Panthers won the Class AA state championship on Nov. 27, 1976. Elyria Catholic celebrated the 40th anniversary of that amazing turnaround at this year’s homecoming game.
After the Panthers went winless in 1974, the first change was made and Mike Noonan, a coach from New Mexico, was hired to pick up the pieces. His positive attitude helped the Panthers bounce back strong, going 7-2 and showing plenty of promise for the next season.
Noonan resigned unexpectedly the next summer, however, and those bleak feelings on Gulf and Poplar were back.
“He just disappeared,” said Briant McLaughlin, EC’s quarterback. “Didn’t even say goodbye.”
With athletic director Bob Guinta on vacation, assistant AD Lou Rotunda quickly filled the void, hiring 26-year-old Jim Rattay, who was Lake Catholic’s defensive coordinator.
“Bob was out of town on vacation and so was the principal (Sister Mary Michael),” Rattay said. “Lou Rotunda and (assistant coach) Mike Sheck interviewed me and hired me. It was about a week before mandatory practices started.
“I inherited a vast group of good players. God really looked down on me.”
Rattay did the rest. Before leaving for Euclid following the 1983-84 school year, he racked up a 79-7-3 record, won two state championships and left behind another state championship-caliber team for Fred Schmitz.
The success continued for Rattay, who went on to coach more championship high school football in Arizona, where he still resides.
It started with coaching
Rattay retained Noonan’s old Notre Dame Box, a wishbone-like offense, but brought along his 5-2 angle defense. Coaching at Lake Catholic, a team that beat EC 12-6 the year before, he was familiar with EC’s personnel.
Ironically, the Cougars defeated the Panthers 20-7 in 1976 for their only loss and were one of only two teams to score two touchdowns on EC. Chanel was the other.
“(Noonan) brought in that box offense,” McLaughlin said. “Jim stuck with it. Nobody had ever seen that before, which is kind of weird. Football’s been around forever. I don’t think anyone around here was running that. We had the personnel with Bryan Thomas and Matt McKeon. It really worked. We had a great line and we really didn’t need to throw the ball, thank God.”
Rattay scrambled to assemble a coaching staff. Thomas’ father, J.B. Thomas, came on board as did Steve Currier, who was a basketball assistant under Guinta. Along with Sheck and Mike Pollack, the staff came together and dedicated itself to making the team better.
A gain from a loss
Elyria Catholic’s road to clinching a playoff berth wasn’t easy. The Panthers had to beat Lakeland Conference champion Midview and perennial power Clearview along with Firelands, which was 8-2 and Inland Conference champ. EC also defeated Chanel 20-12 in another hard-fought game.
“There were only three divisions and only four schools made it,” Rattay said of the playoffs. “We were fortunate to be in there.”
It was the Lake Catholic loss that turned things around for Rattay and the Panthers.
“It was a personal game,” Rattay said. “I had coached all those kids and they were out to show me.”
“He didn’t like to lose,” said Thomas, EC’s star junior tailback who had grown up playing CYO football. “Losing was not a good thing. He ran us hard on Monday (after the Lake Catholic game). He was a no-nonsense type of guy and we learned rather quickly that we didn’t want to have another Monday practice like that.”
“We made some personnel changes,” Rattay said. “We moved Jim Machovina to tight end and put Dan Stefak at linebacker.”
“That was absolutely the game that turned us around,” McLaughlin said. “First, it humbled us a little bit, and two, Jim was trying to platoon — nobody played both ways. I think only Dan and myself were playing both ways. After that game, it was pretty obvious we needed to have more players going both ways.”
The Panthers didn’t lose again.
In fact, EC didn’t lose another game until the state championship game the following season. Elyria Catholic came that close to winning back-to-back titles, something it did accomplish in 1983 and ’84.
“We had lost to Oberlin (6-0) the last game of the year (in 1975),” said Stefak, an All-Ohio linebacker. “That cost us a chance at the playoffs, but we were close. I was an offensive guard up to the Lake Catholic game but at halftime we made some changes. (Rattay) wanted to play two-platoon football like he did at Lake but we had different resources at Elyria Catholic. He had to play some of us both ways.”
“Our sophomore year, we were 0-10,” McLaughlin said. “We were pretty horrible. It was after the homecoming game, our sophomore class had a meeting with the coaches and we told them we would win the state championship when we were seniors.”
Prophetic? Sure, but primarily it showed what a confident bunch the Panthers had waiting in the wings. Stefak credited longtime assistant Sheck along with Rattay for turning things around. Sheck passed away in 2005.
“Sheck was an offensive genius,” said Stefak, who returned to Elyria in 1992 after retiring from his job as art director with General Motors in Chicago. “Rattay knew his defense. He played linebacker in college and kind of protected us. He had the linemen up front and we cleaned things up. Between the two, it was a beautiful balance.
“Rattay was a quiet thinker with lots of strategic moves. He was great coach on life — not just football. Teamwork made it work. We all had our job. It all jelled.”
No doubting Thomas … or defense
The Panthers, not expecting to even make the playoffs, were supposed to play Elyria West in their regular-season finale. One problem: that was also the first night of the postseason.
The Panthers canceled their game with Elyria West and prepared for the state semifinal against undefeated Huron (10-0). EC turned the favored Tigers away with a goal-line stand just before halftime and went on to win 14-0 at Baldwin Wallace.
“The kids were really pumped in the locker room at halftime,” Rattay said. “We came out and scored in the second half and just outplayed them.”
“That game was the state championship game,” McLaughlin said. “Huron was a phenomenal team. We were not supposed to win that game.”
Thomas was spectacular in the title game. He rushed for a then county-record 287 yards in the 34-10 win over unbeaten Brookville, which had recorded seven shutouts during the season.
Thomas returned a kickoff 95 yards for a score and had another TD on a 78-yard run. He scored three times against a Blue Devils defense that had allowed just 26 points all year.
“I was lucky that day,” Thomas said. “Kick return, couple touchdowns, but it was the hard work and preparation that did it. I hope my fellow teammates feel the same. It was 22 guys coming together under Jim Rattay. It worked out very well for me. The script couldn’t have been written any better.
“They were taking it to us early,” McLaughlin said of the Blue Devils. “After they scored and kicked off to us, Bryan ran that 95-yarder back. Dan Stefak threw a block against their star player — their star running back, their star linebacker, the captain of the team. He never came back out after that play.”
“Stefak had a big downfield block on the kick return,” Rattay said. “It took one of Brookville’s better players out of the game. We rolled from there.”
“I don’t remember if we were the top seed or the second seed,” Thomas said. “It didn’t really matter. We only had to win one game (Huron) to get to the championship. We were little, old Elyria Catholic. I don’t think we talked about the playoffs or winning the championship. We learned some lessons from Rattay. I learned a work ethic from him I still use today. Hard work and preparation really paid off.”
On offense, EC’s usual starters were junior center Kevin Young, senior Stefak at guard along with junior Tom Reighley, senior Ed Szabo was on one side while juniors Kevin Kirsch and Phil Gidich split time at the other tackle. Machovina, a senior, was at tight end and fellow seniors Tim Bertovich and Greg Diederich were at split end and wingback, respectively. Thomas was the tailback and juniors Matt McKeon and Frank Gentile split duty at fullback with McLaughlin calling the signals.
Defensively, Reighley and junior Bob Baumbick were the ends, senior Gary Reigelsberger and Szabo the tackles. Young lined up at nose tackle. Stefak and senior Ken Machock were the linebackers. Senior Gary Kaminski and sophomore Bob Slaughter were the cornerbacks with McLaughlin and senior Dale Verhoff at the safeties. Senior Pat Costigan handled the kicking chores.
Thomas was undeniably the leader of the team. He went on to play at Pittsburgh and briefly professionally. Today, he works as a felony adult probation officer for the county. He’s also been a volunteer assistant football coach at Elyria High for the past dozen years.
Stefak was recruited by Cincinnati, Baldwin Wallace and Ashland. He didn’t wind up at Cincinnati due to the horrible snowstorms the area had in 1977 and he didn’t want to play on BW’s artificial turf. He wound up at Ashland but suffered ankle and shoulder injuries and had to give up the game.
“I remember Rattay saying, ‘You do positive things, positive things will happen,’” Stefak said. “We learned a lot from him.”
Contact Tim Gebhardt at 329-7135 or email@example.com.