There’s a chant that’s been making its way through the Eaton Rapids community for months now. Football coach Mike Smith knows it well.
“We have a simple saying here,” he said. “We are ER. I can walk down the hallway and say ‘We are’ and 40 people will scream back, ‘ER.'”
That chant has become a rising roar over the past week. On Nov. 1, after a stunning 5-4 season, the Eaton Rapids football team entered the playoffs for the first time in school history and clobbered local rival Charlotte, 49-21.
Community members lined the streets in downtown Eaton Rapids, waving signs as the Greyhounds left for the Division 3 matchup. They packed the visiting stands in Charlotte and later greeted the players at home, a massive crowd cheering as they stepped off the bus.
This Friday, those watching the Cinderella story can expect to see more of the same when the football team travels to Tecumseh. Car loads of fans are expected to go with the high school team in an effort to support an accomplishment that many people say has lifted up the entire community.
For his part, Smith, who took the Eaton Rapids coaching job in December of last year, said when he started working with the team’s 35 players it was no secret that they had a bad record to overcome.
Smith had the head football coach 20 years ago, and led that team to finish 5-4. “That was the last winning record they had and these last 20 years there’s been a drought.”
Changing that took having a belief in the ability of his players and getting them to buy into it, too.
“The old coaches would grab face masks and yell,” said Smith. “They believed in breaking you down to build you back up. I’ve never believed that. What I’ve always believed in is just to be honest with people after you make realistic expectations. You make kids believe in themselves. Probably the biggest leap of faith for anybody is to believe in something bigger than themselves.”
Eaton Rapids quarterback Jarred McDaniel said Smith opened the season by telling the team over and over again they were winners.
“He just drilled that in our minds,” McDaniel said. “It helped us and just boosted our confidence.”
Leslee Cooper’s son Robert is a member of the team. She said parents knew the group had talent, but Smith drew it to the surface.
Over the course of the season, Cooper said she watched her son and his teammates work harder than they ever have.
“They had their doubters but there wasn’t one of those boys who thought like that,” she said. “They pushed themselves to the limit.”
That determination has been a rallying cry for Eaton Rapids. Even families without a connection to the high school team have become supporters of the playoff run.
Local resident Arianne Overholtz, a mother of three, said her family stood on the street corner and cheered last Friday as the Greyhounds left for Charlotte.
“It kind of brings tears to your eyes to see everybody support them the way that they have,” she said.
McDaniel said the community support has helped him remain confident, but he admits that he isn’t ready to marvel at their season just yet.
“To be honest, it really hasn’t hit me yet,” he said. “We’re still going.”
Smith said it’s that kind of focus that his team needs to continue playing in the post season.
“Our kids, they don’t worry about losing. What they do is work hard to do the right things to win. We have a bunch of kids that really believe they can win, regardless of who we’re playing.”