Home away from home

Times Observer photo by Brian Hagberg The Flannel Panel celebrates a Warren point during a District 10 volleyball semi-final match at McDowell High School, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. The student support helped the Dragons rally from 0-2 to win and advance to the title game.

There are certain sports venues/events that give the home team such a decided advantage over their opponent the game is virtually over before it starts.

The 12th man in Seattle, the Cameron Crazies at Duke, a plethora of (insert color here)outs across college football.

The common theme among all these settings is fan engagement. The fans make the home team feel more comfortable, and often provide some extra motivation to take care of business. The athletes respond by playing inspired and the home crowd typically goes home happy.

But what happens when those teams have to go on the road?

That advantage is lost . . . unless the teams fans “travel well.”

A large, travelling fan base can provide a “home away from home” and help their team overcome a hostile road environment.

What I witnessed Thursday night has me thoroughly convinced Warren’s Flannel Panel is the local equivalent for those venues listed above.

Playing in the District 10 volleyball semi-finals at McDowell High School, Warren had easily traveled better than Villa Maria. More Dragon faithful had made the approximately 70-mile trip than had those from Villa who needed to go less than five miles to attend (distance calculated from home school to McDowell).

Still, the Victors had found a way to get to the Dragons early, building a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead.

Midway through the second set; however, the flannel-clad Warren students arrived and immediately made their presence felt. Though Warren lost the second set in extra points, the Dragons came out and dominated in the third and fourth sets before hanging on to put Villa away in the fifth, completing an improbable comeback and punching their ticket to the District 10 Championship Game this afternoon.

“When the Flannel Panel walked into the gym, I instantly had a smile on my face,” senior defensive specialist Kelsey Dilks said.

“This (match) was the best thing I’ve ever been a part of in the Flannel Panel,” Owen Balas said. “I screamed so hard my head and stomach hurt.”

The difference once the students arrived was almost palpable. The Dragons, who looked tentative and unsure to start the contest (much as they did against Oil City in the quarterfinals), appeared more relaxed and began playing like the team that rolled to a 14-3 record during the regular season.

“Once they finally got there in the middle of the second set, the atmosphere of the game completely changed,” Dilks said.

Rather than losing energy after Warren dropped a hard-fought second set, 31-29, in extra points, the Flannel Panel simply ratcheted up the intensity.

“When the team is down, but we know they can win, we get more hyped up,” Jimmy Lobdell said.

“The energy that they brought made all the difference and really helped to pick us up when we needed it,” sophomore outside hitter Grace Wortman said.

As the match progressed and the Dragons picked up more and more momentum, the students simply got louder. As the student volume increased, the rest of Warren’s fans followed suit. The cacophony reached such a fever pitch, even other media members were forced to take notice.

“I swear I was at McDowell HS tonight, but from 6 pm until around 8, it felt like Warren HS,” the Erie Times-News’ Tom Reisenweber tweeted after the game. “What a crowd for the Dragons.”

Meanwhile, Villa players were clearly thrown off by the boisterous cheering section and, on more than one occasion, appeared to lose focus just enough to cause an unforced error or misplayed ball.

“We love screwing with the other team,” Lobdell said.

The enthusiasm was so infectious, General McLane students-known as the “Red Sea”-soon joined forces with the Flannel Panel. The combined effort caused the decibal level to increase tenfold.

“That, was cool,” Lobdell said of the additional support.

Of course, all this support nearly never happened. The pep bus bringing all the students to McDowell blew a tire before it made it out of Warren County.

“It was a little nerve wracking,” Balas said. “If it had taken much longer, they were going to cancel the trip.”

The issue was resolved and the rest, as they say, is history.

Villa countered with a student section of approximately zero students. There did appear to be some students in attendance, but they were likely players siblings or close friends. While some of the Villa parents tried to get some chants going, they were decidedly overmatched.

“It was an indescribable feeling having friends and family have our backs and build our confidence,” Wortman said. “It was awesome to feel like we were playing at home.”

“I think I can speak for all the girls when I say that it was the most incredible feeling to have so many of our friends and family there to support,” Dilks added.

All this is not to say fan support was the sole reason for Warren’s comeback victory, but it certainly played a big role.

“I had no doubt that my team could pull through and beat Villa,” Dilks said. “But the Flannel Panel was one of the reasons why we won.”

The Panel will have to dig even deeper if it wants to tilt things in Warren’s favor today because all that extra support they got from the Red Sea will now be in opposition as Warren faces General McLane at 1 p.m. in Corry for the District 10 title.

“It seems like it’s going to be intense,” Balas said.

“We’re going to have to be even louder,” Lobdell added.

While the pair is extremely confident in their ability to match whatever GM has to offer, they were even more confident in the player’s ability to bring home the school’s first-ever district volleyball championship.

Balas said the Dragons should, “Put it all out on the line and don’t worry about who McLane is or their history.”

And not to worry ladies, they fully intend on providing another home away from home environment as today’s pep bus roster was full by midday Friday.

“We’re going to be there to support them as much as we can,” Lobdell said. “We’re their biggest fans.”