Mary Stirsman and Anna Pratt were speechless for a moment, smiling as they each got lost in the memories of the photos.
They sat at Stirsman’s kitchen table accompanied by their sons, the little boys in the photos who are now young men.
“Even though they’re in high school, I still see them as little kids running around with their pads on the wrong way, still learning how to play,” Pratt said.
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Pratt’s son, Sam, and Stirsman’s son, Quinton, both sat and laughed as their moms shared stories from almost 10 years ago, before football was a passion and the boy’s friendship was an unbreakable bond.
Quinton Stirsman and Sam Pratt are two of 36 seniors on Center Grove’s football team.
And with the exception of a player or two who might have moved to the Center Grove area during high school, almost all 36 seniors started in bantam football leagues as 7- and 8-year-olds, Quinton Stirsman said.
“I feel like, since we have all been playing together for so long, it’s easier to have fun and focus on having fun first,” Quinton Stirsman said. “It makes it a lot easier to play together when we’ve been together through all those years and have become friends because of it.”
Quinton Stirsman, a wide receiver, remembers playing with safety Connor Steeb and Sam Pratt, a defensive tackle, in bantam football. Since sixth grade, Steeb, Pratt and Stirsman have played on the same football team.
And they’re not the only ones with deep rooted ties to teammates. Senior defensive tackle Jon Duncan and senior offensive tackle Josh Clifford played on the same bantam league football team in fifth grade and have been buddies ever since, Duncan said.
Clifford played his first year of tackle football with senior wide receiver Zak Smith, and in third grade he was teammates with Quinton Stirsman. In third grade, Sam Pratt was teammates with Steeb and Zak Smith.
Mary Stirsman named several more who stood next to her son in those team photos. When they play together for so long, you get to know all of these kids, she said.
“It’s a pretty special senior class,” she said. “You look at some of these photos from bantam football and you think, wow, these teams were loaded with talent.”
The bond between their boys has grown as the game has become more competitive and more about winning, Mary Stirsman said.
Football started to become a dedication and a passion as the boys were heading into middle school. When Stirsman, Pratt and the other current seniors were in fifth grade, Center Grove pulled off its miraculous come-back win against Carmel in the Class 5A state championship game in 2008.
Sam Pratt, who lived next door to former Center Grove Trojan Justin Holbrook, remembered seeing Holbrook with his state championship ring and instantly becoming infatuated with wanting more out of football, committing himself to working toward one day getting a ring of his own.
“We talked about the 2008 team like they were gods,” Pratt said. “We thought (winning state) was the coolest thing in our lives.”
At that age, Stirsman said, he never fathomed he would be in the same position as that 2008 team.
But as their eighth-grade season came to an end, the boys who had grown up playing together received a special message from their current head coach Eric Moore.
Moore told eighth-grade football players from both Center Grove Middle School North and Center Grove Middle School Central that there was no more divide, that everyone was now a Trojan and that he believed this class was the next class to win a state championship, Anna Pratt said.
“By the time we got to high school, we knew what Center Grove football was all about,” Quinton Stirsman said. “All of us had played together since we were really young, we are really good friends. I know just about all the seniors from playing football growing up. Most of my friends, I know each of them from football.”
The bond between the seniors is unique, said Tim Stirsman, Quinton’s dad.
With this group of seniors, friendships, the team bond, it all started in bantam league football, Tim Stirsman said.
“These guys have grown up together through football,” he said.
That growth has come to a culmination this season, with the Trojans facing Penn High School for the Class 6A state championship Saturday evening. These seniors have controlled their own destiny; and through a perfect, undefeated season so far, they have decided when they’ll play their last game.
Anna Pratt said she is as excited if not more excited than the team, but Mary Stirsman is sad to see more than 10 years of driving her son to practices, going to games and being around other parents come to an end.
“I should be so excited thinking about Saturday night, but I do have a sadness that this is all coming to an end,” she said. “It’s been so great watching these boys in high school.”