Daviere Andrews saw it. The Lorain High guard took an inbounds pass on the run at midcourt, looked up and saw exactly what he wanted to see. Rashod Berry was streaking toward the rim behind the Shaw defense, and there were no Cardinals with a chance to catch the 6-5 Ohio State football commit.
“It’s showtime,” the man behind me said.
Andrews took two steps and a quick dribble and made a crow hop as he put the ball right on the money to the soaring Berry, who slammed the alley-oop down with two hands. It took four seconds from inbounds pass to dunk, another slam in another victory in a dream season for the Titans.
Lorain High is 22-0, Lake Erie League champs and celebrating a perfect season. The Titans are the No. 2-ranked team in the state in Division I, winning big – that Shaw game was a 95-51 laugher – and small, including a win vs. Bedford in January on a stunning buzzer beater already dubbed the Miracle at Lorain High.
But most of all, the Titans are winning in a city that isn’t used to it. The football team made the state playoffs this year to become the first Lorain City Schools squad to do so in more than three decades. The basketball team’s run has ignited the town, with supporters filling the school gym hours before tip each game day and the supporters nearly outnumbering Bedford fans Tuesday night for a game held an hour from Lorain.
For a city that has long been known more for what it used to be – a booming steel city and port with nearly 80,000 residents – than what the economically depressed area is now, having sports teams that now matter is something to rally around, one packed gymnasium at a time.
“It can really bring a community together when you win because it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or Hispanic or rich or poor, you all have the same interest,” said longtime Lorain native and Lorain High teacher Steve Cawthon. “People talk about the Lorain High games like you’re going to a Cavs game or something. You’ve never had that around here.”
With more than 60,000 residents, Lorain is a unique place in the state of Ohio. While 81.1 percent of Ohioans are white alone, that percentage drops to 55.0 in Lorain. A full 25.2 percent of the population is Hispanic, largely Puerto Rican thanks to a once-steady influx of residents from the island who moved to the city to work in industry.
The poverty rate in Lorain is nearly twice the Ohio average. The per capita income is nearly $8,000 less than the state average, the median household income almost $15,000 less. Crime statistics are troubling; Lorain is in the bottom 10 percent of American cities when it comes to safety, with the violent crime rate nearly double that of the state.
To live in Lorain is to know you live in a different place. One suburb to the east, Avon Lake, is 94.0 percent white with a median household income more than double Lorain’s. One to the southwest, Amherst, is 92.0 percent white and its household income is nearly double Lorain’s. The city’s population has dropped by nearly 20 percent since the 1970s. The economic downtown that crippled many of the industrial cities in northern Ohio hit Lorain particularly hard. It is not thriving.
When you hear the news from January that Republic Steel will idle 614 workers at the mill that stretches the length of East 28th Street, you know it means things aren’t getting better anytime soon. When you see the now empty Ford plant on the border of Lorain and Vermilion that used to pump out row upon row of Econoline vans that would sit parked along Lake Erie shore after production, you know that things aren’t what they used to be. When you see empty storefronts on Broadway downtown, you can feel why nearly 20,000 residents have left over the past few decades.
That’s the backdrop in place as Lorain High has raced to its undefeated season. When people talk about Lorain, they often talk about the bad, not the good. And there is good. It’s the birthplace of military heroes and iconic authors, and before Admiral King High and Southview High combined into Lorain High a few years ago, Southview boasted an award-winning Model United Nations club of which I an alumnus. Some of my best friends from high school have worked in public policy, politics, theatre and journalism at the highest levels.
But Model UN championships don’t bring thousands of people to a school or light up Facebook and YouTube like an unbeaten basketball team.
“I think we all realize that you are there to educate the kids,” Cawthon said. “But athletics gets people that don’t know about the school to pay attention. When you win, it gives you a positivity about what is going on, and then you get people who think, ‘Hey, I’m going to go check these guys out.’ And it’s nice that people that come check us out are coming back again and again.”
For their part, Berry and his teammates seem to recognize what they represent. To many associated with the city, the stigma attached to Lorain is chipped away one win after another. The pride, dormant for so long, builds with each victory.
“We just want to make something out of ourselves, make the city of Lorain proud,” Berry said. “That’s a real thing. Lorain is known for bad stuff, but we’re not really bad. We’re good kids out there. We just want to make Lorain proud, do something positive.”
That’s why each sellout crowd at the Lorain High gym, each Facebook post after each victory, has meant so much to those of us who grew up in the International City. Fans stop head coach John Rositano at Drug Mart and Cawthon, the team’s PA announcer, at the gym to talk about the latest wins.
“It’s amazing,” Berry said. “It’s super right now. I just love it. We’re having a special year. I’m glad it’s my senior year and I’m glad I could set the tone for it.”
Lorain has been called the International City for its diverse population and the Steel City for its industrial production.
Now, it can be called Lob City. To watch the Titans play basketball right now is to watch the Showtime Lakers – on fast-forward. The Titans run from the second the game starts, and Lorain High has topped 90 points three times this year even with the eight-minute quarters. The entire operation is high-energy and the Titans play above the rim, whether it’s Berry’s high-flying jams or Devon Andrews’ inbounds dunk off an opponent that went viral. The cheerleaders have white poster board placards with black X’s they use to mark each dunk, and they don’t just sit there unused.
“Fans see kids playing extremely hard, extremely unselfishly, and I think people appreciate the way we’re playing basketball,” Rositano said. “I think they’re having fun watching it. It’s a bunch of kids playing unbelievably hard and unbelievably unselfish.”
Berry is hardly the only player of note on the team. Big man Devon Andrews will go to Kent State next year on a basketball scholarship. Senior point guard Eddie Williamson will play football at John Carroll and runs the up-tempo attack with a veteran’s savvy. Sophomore Naz Bohannon had the presence of mind and guts to make the winning shot vs. Bedford in the Miracle at Lorain High and could be the next star.
All have been praised for the way they have represented the school and the community.
“I’m really happy for the kids,” athletics director Bryan Koury said. “We have a really, really good group of kids, and the only way you give yourself the opportunity to have this type of success is when you have kids that genuinely, genuinely like each other.”
A few years ago, Admiral King and Southview merged into one. There was a thought at the time that combining two schools with mediocre athletics histories might lead to one school with a chance to succeed at a higher level.
Now, the idea has become a success. Some are trying to rehabilitate the downtown area of the city. A gleaming new school building is coming. Lorain could soon have more to feel good about than any time in recent history.
But right now, it has a basketball team that is turning heads and restoring pride, one win at a time.
“The whole school is excited,” Rositano said. “It’s a neat thing to see because it hasn’t been that way for a long time. It’s been like a dead school for a while with the sports teams having been bad. The football and basketball teams have rejuvenated everything. Now you have an $85 million school coming. It’s looking pretty good.”