CLAIRTON, Pa. —
You would probably pass it driving if you didn't know where it was. It's a nondescript, three-story brick building sitting in a residential area. Back in the 1980s the structure was refurbished, and who knows how long you have to go back before it was modernized prior to that.
About four years ago, school officials decided to put up a flashing sign that flickers "CEC." It means Clairton Educational Center. It's much more radiant in the gloaming.
That's it. The tiny building that houses the high school football team tied for the country's current longest winning streak has no sign that says "Clairton High School."
Think of an urban football rendering of "Hoosiers
" and you have a great grasp of the football team at Clairton (Pa.)
. Missing are the expansive Midwestern crops and barns, but everything else matches perfectly.
The school fits about 700 students, Kindergarten-through-12, all in one building. The graduating class is comprised of 48 students, almost equaling the number of consecutive victories the Bears have going — 46 — tying national powerhouse Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.)
, the No. 1 team in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Football Rankings presented by the Army National Guard
It's actually the longest current football winning streak at all three levels of football in the country if you include the NFL and college football. The top mark there is currently at 44, held by Division III University of Wisconsin at Whitewater as it heads for a third-straight NCAA Division III championship.
What makes Clairton's winning streak so unique is how tiny the school is for the number of excellent athletes the area produces. The Bears will look to extend their winning streak to 47 games and claim their third-straight state title when they play Southern Columbia Area (Catawissa, Pa.) for the PIAA Class A state championship
on Friday at 1 p.m. at HersheyPark Stadium.
The Bears' 30-8 state semifinal victory over Sharpsville (Pa.) last weekend tied a WPIAL state record for consecutive victories, established by Braddock 51 years ago. (The state record for consecutive victories is 59 held by Central Bucks West 1997-2000). And it also meant Clairton became the first team from the powerful Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) to reach the Class A state finals for a fourth-straight year.
They're also very open to talk about "The Streak." For the players, it's a proud badge they wear, not a dark mistress looming in the shadows. It's a refreshing discourse as opposed to the taboo grown men in the NFL feel reluctant to even mention when they're striving for an undefeated season. Maybe because the Clairton players realize what they're playing for resonates beyond the football field. There is a feeling of community each time the Bears are on the field.
It couldn't come to a more tight-knit area. Clairton was slammed hard by the economic hardships of the 1970s. Main Street features a row of run-down empty storefronts, and drive deeper and you'll see the hollow steel mills. It's considered an economically depressed area that's shrinking, though it continues to carry a strong football tradition that traces back to the 1930s.
It's football — and Clairton High School — that's remained a community mainstay. When the Bears are broached, people in Clairton talk in "we" and "us." Football galvanizes the community, which gathers each Friday night 2,000 strong to watch the Bears play.
The Bears are 15-0 this season. They're a 29-man squad with nine starters that go both ways. Clairton school officials like to note that 66 percent of the team carries high academic honors, with a school population filled with many single-parent homes whose parents work two and sometimes three jobs.
"We love our city and community; we think about everyone when we play and it is more than just the school, it's the whole area we play for," said Carvan Thompson
, the Bears' 6-foot, 230-pound senior center/nose guard who's continuing a personal milestone of his own by starting in his 64th-straight game, the most consecutive games ever started by a Pennsylvania high school player (breaking the previous record of 59 by Strath Haven's Dan Connor 2000-03). "We see the streak as a real good thing. We won four straight WPIAL titles and the record is good for us and it's good for the area. But there is pressure that comes with the streak. We don't want to be the team that loses it.
"We want to leave a legacy and people will remember us and remember playing in high school. The city is so tight, you see the same people every single day. We can't let them down."
Said Capri Thompson
, Carvan's younger brother and the Bears' starting quarterback, "Our community is definitely our ‘12th man' on the field. The prior players tell us all of the time that they're still on the field and they feel they're on the field as long as the streak is intact. We do play for a lot more than just ourselves. No matter what happens in life, I think the streak is something we'll always have. We just happened to be No. 1 in the country and I can look back and acknowledge that at some time."
Tom Nola is in his 10th season as head coach of the Bears. He came back this season after retiring back in June as a history teacher at Clairton for 18 years. Nola can't walk down the street in Clairton without someone patting him on the back or wishing him luck in the state title game Friday. He said what makes this version of the Bears special is how fast this team is.
Between Capri Thompson, Trenton Coles
and Tyler Boyd
, Clairton has a number of offensive weapons it could turn to.
"We've tried to continue doing what we've done in the past," Nola said. "In 10 years, this is probably the fastest team we've ever had. We're a little thin on the line, but in the skill positions, we're fast. For the players, the streak isn't that big of a deal. They talk about it all the time. The pressure, I think, falls on the coaches. The players on this team have so much confidence that they seriously think they can beat anyone. They think they can beat the Class AAAA schools. But what we've tried to do is preach looking ahead at just the next game.
"Now I know human nature sometimes makes it difficult because you try to convince your players that the team they're playing is worthy. But we really try hard to talk about this every week, believe it or not. We brought this up 46 games ago; we don't want that feeling of losing again. We constantly remind them of what losing is like."
The last time Clairton lost a game, these seniors were sophomores, and it was their season opener in 2009, a loss to Laurel High School.
Since then it's been 46 straight, two straight PIAA Class A state championships, four straight WPIAL titles and an urge to keep going, and going, and going.
"The big thing for us is we play for each other," Boyd said. "I'm a junior and I want to make sure the seniors leave as winners. We have a whole bunch of athletes that can play anywhere on the field. I think that's what makes us so good. We hate to lose. We've been so used to winning; we don't know how to lose. We're playing for the seniors, like these seniors have played for other teams."
At the heart of it, though, lies Clairton.
"We know we don't have a lot of size," Coles said. "Most teams are bigger than us. We kind of don't let size get in the way. We have more heart, we're tougher and we're faster. We're playing for the community; football brings this community together. We're like the Pittsburgh Steelers of Clairton. It's a real good feeling to have. We don't have much in Clairton, but this community knows they have us."