CINCINNATI — When seniors Ben Hambleton, Nicholas Paff and Andrew Spinney lead their Elder High School teammates onto the field Friday night, it won't just be another football game.

Sure, it's the start of a new season. They're also taking on a perennial powerhouse from across the river in Covington Catholic.

But beyond the score of the game, Friday night's showdown at The Pit on Cincinnati's west side represents a relative return to normalcy for the team and community alike.

In response to COVID-19, the Ohio Department of Health limited capacity at high school games to 15% last season. Usually The Pit holds 10,000 so no more than 1,500 people could attend.

Players, coaches, cheerleaders and band members didn't count against that figure, but the fans did. In most cases, games were played in front of limited crowds made up of immediate family members.

"You grow up coming to The Pit, seeing 10,000 people here, and last year... it didn't feel quite the same," said Hambleton, the team's quarterback. "It’s really exciting that our senior year, we get to have full capacity again and show out in front of the crowd."

Like Hambleton, Paff and Spinney are from the west side. In fact, most of the team comes from that part of town.

For a lot of those kids, there was never any doubt that they’d one day end up at Elder and playing football for the Panthers.

The Pit, Elder High School's football stadium (Casey Weldon | Spectrum News 1)
The Pit, Elder High School's football stadium (Casey Weldon | Spectrum News 1)

“This is a tight-knit community. We all grew up coming to games here, all of us knew we were going to Elder our whole lives. We know it from the time we were little kids," said Paff, a leader on the team's defense.

"We’re really excited to get out here and have the whole west side community behind us for the first time in two years," added Spinney, a middle linebacker. "It’s going to be a really exciting atmosphere."

One of the people in the stands will be Pete Witte, who graduated from Elder 1986. He bought Panthers season tickets for the first time the following year. Like a lot of fans, now he attends every game “barring unavoidable conflict.”

“I know certain old-timers who’ve been attending games for 65 years plus," he said.

But Friday nights aren't just about the action under the lights. They're an opportunity for communities to come together and talk about their lives, neighborhood happenings and a little football, Witte said.

Witte hosts a weekly tailgate in the parking lot of his business, Baron Engraving, which is only a long football toss away from the stadium.

“It's all about the community; Elder faithful of all ages getting together to celebrate a great institution that means so much to so many. It keeps the connection with so many Price Hill expatriates,” he said.

Rachel Hastings has never attended a game at The Pit but she knows just how much Elder High School — and other area high school sports teams — mean to their communities.

“There’s a lot of emotion and community connection attached to high school sports,” she said. “Being able to attend football games again and have fans in the stands helps people feel good."

Hastings is the CEO of Price Hill Will, a local nonprofit that promotes growth throughout the three Price Hill neighborhoods.

She joked that the parking can be challenging on Elder game days — but said that’s a good problem to have.

Hastings said in addition to the tailgating, the games result in increased traffic to local bars and restaurants, maybe Price Hill Chili or somewhere in the Incline District. Fans may make a stop at a local shop and convenience store to pick something up on the way to the stadium.

Thomas Ramstetter at a LaSalle football game (Provided: Tom Ramstetter)
Thomas Ramstetter at a LaSalle football game (Provided: Tom Ramstetter)

“Having those games back is really great. It helps folks not only support local businesses but also feel positive about the future and the neighborhood again," she said.

Troy C. Werner’s daughter, Olivia, doesn’t play football, but she is a part of the Mason High School marching band. She plays clarinet and is a section leader.

Playing in front of nearly-empty stadiums was difficult for the band last year, Werner said. But he’s “extremely grateful” that the team at least had the chance to perform at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, even though there was no Bands of America (BOA) competition.

“We know how hard it was on the seniors last year who had so many events canceled or performed without an audience," he said. "It will make anything that can happen this school year that much more special."

One of the biggest Friday nights of football season will take place Oct. 22 at Lancer Stadium, a few miles down the road from The Pit. Elder will take on one of its rivals, LaSalle High School, in the regular-season finale.

The annual Greater Catholic League matchup is the one Friday night Tom Ramstetter roots against the Elder. Ramstetter is a LaSalle grad and a good season by the Panthers will help his team make the playoffs.

Ramstetter will be in the stands for that game with his son, Thomas. The two have been attending LaSalle games since Thomas was 3.

"Games on Friday nights have become a tradition that my son and his friends look forward to every week during the fall. The kids bring their own footballs and toss in the parking lot before the game and we all have some pizza or wings. Then we go in and watch the game," he said. "There really isn't a better experience to kick off the weekend for our families."

Ramstetter said not being able to attend games last season, but they still found ways to support their team.

They gathered with a limited bubble of football families in someone's backyard each week. They'd grill-out and watch the games on a portable screen one other dad purchased.

"It was good, but nothing like being there in person with the kids," he said. Ramstetter said "It's going to be like a homecoming being back in the stands with my son, the other dads and their kids this fall."