Traverse City West football coach Tim Wooer probably won’t like this story.
“I think too much emphasis is placed on the game [between TC West and crosstown rival Traverse City Central],” Wooer said earlier this season. “The kids get caught up in it.”
But given what’s on the line in this season’s matchup between Wooer’s Titans and the Trojans, no one can be blamed for getting caught up in the hype. On Friday, West and Central will collide at Thirlby Field. The winner will earn a playoff birth, the loser’s season will end.
This scenario hardly seemed plausible a month ago, after each team got off to a lackluster start to the season. The Titans limped to a 1-3 record, leaving the staff and players scratching their heads. But four straight blowout wins ensued. Meanwhile, after Coach Tom Passinault’s Trojans lost to Petoskey in week four, their record was also 1-3. But since that defeat, the Trojans have made the end zone their second home, piling up 164 points in four victories, all of which came on the road.
But the rivalry game will feel like both a home and a road game at times, with each student section sure to make their share of noise. The Titans “Bleacher Creatures” will be on hand, while the Trojan band will be fired up to play their fight song after a score. At times in the rivalry game it seems like there’s as much action in the stands as there is on the field at Thirlby.
“I love coming onto the field,” says a Titan linebacker, “it’s like Friday Night Lights with all the people and the noise.”
The schools may share a zip code, but their team chemistry and approach to the rivalry game are drastically different. Central gears up for this game every season, pointing to it for bragging rights in the city. “It can make our whole year,” Passinault has said. The Trojan staff exhibits a feverish hunger to defeat West. Some say at any cost.
“They’re a dirtier team,” says a former Trojan player who now has kids at West. Indeed, Central quarterback Mack Sovereign was ejected from a game earlier this year for a personal foul.
The Titans try very hard to treat the clash with Central as just another game. “We have to win this one to play another game,” coach Wooer insists. “I have to remind [the kids] that if they want to play against Rockford [in the playoffs], they have to win this game, or the season’s over.” As a result, at least on the surface, the rivalry doesn’t feel the same on the West side as it does on the Central campus. Some of that might have to do with history.
“Central thinks they have all the trophies and state championships and so they’re the best football school,” says former Trojan Dave Halachukas Jr., who played for Traverse City coaching legend Jim Ooley in the 1970s. With a blend of power running and stifling defense, Ooley guided the Trojans to three state titles in an 11-year stretch from 1978-1988. But since the split of the school district prior to the 1997 season that resulted in two Class A schools in Traverse City, neither team has approached that level of success. The Trojans haven’t won a playoff game in three tries, while West is 1-7 in seven trips to the post-season.
When the schools split, most of the best football players open enrolled in the new school, while Central retained the best basketball stars. Each school had their way in the respective sports for the first few years. But now any geographic imbalance in talent has leveled out.
“There are good players on both sides of town,” says a Central defensive back, “but we’re the Trojans, and it’s pounded into us that we’re the real Traverse City football team.”
The “new school” on the west side of town holds a 9-4 advantage in the rivalry series, having won each of the first four games. The Trojans, however, have won the last two contests. In 2008, the Trojans won the rivalry game 21-14 to advance to the playoffs, the last time either school has done so. This Friday’s game will be the seventh time that a playoff birth has rested on the outcome of the game for at least one of the schools and the third time it’s been on the line for both teams. Passinault has a 2-1 record in the rivalry, while Wooer is 0-2. Neither head coach has a personal stake in the emotional side of the rivalry – Passinault spent 13 years at Grand Rapids Catholic Central, the same high school he played for. Wooer spent nine seasons as head coach for Kingsley, where he won a state title.
The Titan coach may not want to place too much emphasis on the rivalry, but he can’t keep his players from doing so.
“This is for more than just bragging rights for that game,” says a senior Titan lineman who has lost twice to the Trojans. “This is about owning them for the whole year.”