Supporters: Welcome home East

More than two hours had passed since Westfield had finished off a 16-13 win over Columbus East in the Class 5A state finals. The clock was approaching midnight, but that didn’t deter a flock of Olympians fans.

An orange-clad throng of about 500 people packed one side of the East gymnasium Saturday night. They were there to honor the football team that had fallen just short of the school’s third state title.

“It’s pretty overwhelming to see this sea of orange come in here,” East coach Bob Gaddis said. “Columbus East is a special place. There’s a lot of things that go on here. It’s a great place to be a student. It’s also a great place to be an athlete. This is a first-class place. It’s first-class because we get the support from the school, from our parents to be first class. And these guys are a first-class group.”

After a brief stop at the team’s locker room across the street from the high school, the players arrived at the reception around 11:45 p.m. They entered wearing shirts and ties, most with their letter jackets to fend against the blustery chill that had permeated the November night.

Principal Mark Newell told the team he knew they were hurting because they didn’t get the ultimate prize, in their eyes.

“We are here to tell you that you are going to face adversity in your life. And how you respond to that adversity, that sets your character,” Newell told the team. “Coach Gaddis and his staff emulate to a T what it means to be first class in everything, whether it’s in victory or if it’s in a setback that hurts you like it was tonight. Look back on this moment, and you have an opportunity to learn from yourself and to grow from this.”

Gaddis said during the reception that in his post-game speech, he told the players they had a lot to be proud of and not to hang their heads. He said the state runner-up medal around their necks represents a lot of hard work.

Right now, he said, those medals aren’t the ones they wanted. But in a year or five or 10, when they go back to took look at those, it will bring back a lot of memories.

“There’s a lot of people with a lot of talent in everything that they do — athletics, work, family,” Gaddis said. “But there’s a lot of people that never work hard enough to realize the potential that they have. I think the biggest compliment that I can give this team behind me — I think they played up to their potential.”

Dennis Pierce, the parent of an Olympians player and emcee of the reception, told a story from 2001 when he was an assistant on Gaddis’ first team at East. That team went 5-4 in the regular season, but beat Class 4A No. 7 East Central 44-38 in double overtime in the first round of the sectional.

Pierce said Gaddis convinced his team that it was playing its best when the tournament arrived. The same thing happened this year when the 4A No. 4 Olympians went on the road and upset 4A No. 2 New Palestine, 35-7, in the sectional opener.

“It wasn’t an easy road this year,” Gaddis said. “There were a lot of bumps in it. But we kept getting better. We stayed the course, and I’m really proud of them.”

Athletics director Pete Huse, who is in his second year at East, wasn’t around for the school’s state titles in 1979 or 2013. But he was impressed with what he saw out of this year’s group.

“Coach Gaddis talks about ‘It was a grind this year,'” Huse said. “I mean, six extra weeks of playing football (in the playoffs). You started basically in June for the most part. I have so much respect. You guys will do so much for this town later in life.”

Senior center Harry Crider won the IHSAA Mental Attitude Award following Saturday’s game. He was the lone team member to speak during the reception.

In his comments, Crider thanked the fans.

“I don’t think we’d be where we are today without you,” Crider said. “It means a lot seeing all of our support. We really appreciate it. It’s been a great four years for me and the rest of these guys here.”