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Legare: Fans Along For The Ride With Express Football Team

Posted Friday, November 22, 2013 by Mike Johnston

Legare: Fans along for the ride with Express football team

Family, friends and fans waited patiently to offer congratulations to Eli Thomas after he helped Elmira advance to the state semifinals Saturday at Union-Endicott.

It was perhaps the only time Thomas slowed down all day on the artificial turf at Ty Cobb Stadium. He had burned Syracuse Christian Brothers Academy for 179 combined yards and four touchdowns in a 24-18 victory, including the winning touchdown with over two minutes remaining.

But he wanted to make sure everybody waiting had a chance to shake his hand. And he also wanted to shake their hands as well.

“Every single drive we heard them screaming,” Thomas said of the large Elmira fan base that made the hour-long trip. “It amped us up. We knew we had to get this for the crowd.”

Elmira fans were decked out in Express black and maroon. One fan donned the No. 44 jersey that Elmira Free Academy graduate Ernie Davis — the Elmira Express — helped make famous at Syracuse University more than 50 years ago.

There was no indication the fans came from two schools, a far cry from the crowds two years ago during the initial season of the Express after all sports at Elmira Free Academy and Southside were combined. Academy blue and Southside green were understandably still prominent back then.

Some unhappy people wanted to hold on to the tradition of separate teams for the schools, who every year drew thousands of fans from both sides of the river to see which team would earn bragging rights in the Erie Bell game.

Though it’s hard not to miss the pageantry and intensity of the Erie Bell showdown, there’s also something inspiring about seeing the entire Elmira community come together to cheer on a single team. No doubt they will be there in full force at 6 p.m. Saturday when the Express takes on top-ranked Rochester Aquinas in a semifinal at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester.

This fervor has not always been there at playoff time. I was always a bit saddened to cover an EFA playoff game in front of a couple hundred people at Marty Harrigan Field, a week after 3,000 to 4,000 vocal fans congregated for the rivalry. This season harkens to the pre-Erie Bell days of the 1930s and early 1940s, when a united fan base would cheer for a single Elmira team.

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It’s not a stretch to say the success of the football team and of the sports mergers as a whole have helped make the impending transition to a single Elmira High School a lot easier to swallow for many people. Whatever concerns exist are focused on education and jobs more so than whether Southside and EFA students belong in the same building.

Second-year Elmira head coach Jimmy McCauley, his staff and the players deserve so much credit. Elmira is one win from becoming the first team in district history to advance to a state final in football and has done so playing an exciting brand of football, with Thomas and fellow speed demon Jerry McPeak forming perhaps the top running back tandem in the state.

More significant than the wins is that when you are around this team, you see a group that is likeable, respectful and wins with class. Hard work year-round and teamwork have helped Elmira get to this point, with the team’s star players about as ego-less as they come.

That so many of their classmates and neighbors have come along for the ride all season long has made this experience all the sweeter for the Express.

“It gives you an extra boost when you play when you have people who care about you that much who come out and support you,” McCauley said. “It’s just a great opportunity for the community to come together. I can’t say enough how proud the kids are to have that support from the community.”


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