Behind the Lights

Friday nights during football season is about more than football. From the bands to the concession stands to the athletic trainers, there’s a lot of work that goes into each game to make it memorable for the players, coaches, and fans. This season, The Blade took a look at all of the different aspects that go into Friday nights in the fall.

The concession stand at Steinecker Stadium in Perrysburg stays busy during home games, with 35 workers doling out all sorts of goodies to fans. And apparently, those fans love their popcorn. Perrysburg booster club president Chris Gulgin said they serve about 75 pounds of popcorn at a typical home game.

Friday night in the fall isn’t just a football event ... it is a community event.

Perrysburg AD Chuck Jaco

There are few fan bases more committed to their team than in Liberty Center, where the phrase “Last one out, turn off the lights” is pretty close to reality. One of those fans, 91-year-old Kip Kern, has missed exactly one game in the past 63 years. His wife, Cecilia, isn’t far behind, missing only three games. At least for one, Cecilia had a good excuse as she gave birth to one of the couple’s three children.

And what would high school football be without the bands? Small, medium, or large, bands are an expected part of the experience, and not many do it better than the Marching Generals at Anthony Wayne. The 159-member band takes it seriously, starting with two-a-days in August and continuing with practices throughout the season.

Our series, Behind The Lights, takes you beyond the hash marks and into the lives of the people who make the experience special.

—Jeremy Schneider


Sweating the rust off

Samantha Madar/The Blade

PEMBERVILLE — Under the heat of the summer sun, football teams across Ohio have prepared for kickoff this Friday night.

Eastwood’s 2017 season was historic: The Eagles won more games than ever and nearly captured a Division V state title. If it weren’t for a heartbreaking overtime loss, Craig Rutherford’s team would’ve entered this summer as defending champions.

All of that’s behind them now. The Eagles graduated 18 seniors, and a bunch of underclassmen spent the summer clamoring for starting positions previously held by more experienced players.

“It’s exciting to watch a guy get his first opportunity,” Rutherford said. “We’ve still got some position battles going on. Sometimes in those first weeks, it gets really hot, and being able to rotate a bunch of guys in can be an advantage.”

Every school across the state spent the summer gearing up for kickoff this week. This story is a behind-the-scenes look at how Eastwood prepared.

Practice preparations

Coaching the Eagles is a Rutherford family practice: Craig’s father, Jerry Rutherford, coached the Eagles for 35 years and retired before the 2017 season started. Craig’s younger brother Eric currently coaches the defensive backs, and Jerry has returned this season to work with the offensive linemen.

“I was coming out to two-a-days when I was five,” Craig Rutherford said. “That’s August for me, is being out here at practices. I can’t remember anything else. This is what we do.”

So Rutherford is familiar with how summer practices work at Eastwood. Still, he opens each offseason by tasking team leaders to discuss what they want summer work to look like. Sometimes, they suggest tweaks to two-a-days schedules, and other times, they’ll push for ways to keep the football fun. This year, the coaches obliged when the players requested PB&J sandwiches and chocolate milk as post-practice snacks.

“Really, this is their time,” Rutherford said. “We can keep coaching for 20, 30, 40 years if we want to. They get four years to play, so we want to make it the best experience we can for them.”

For the players who have returned, practices seemed to lack something at the beginning: the 18 seniors who graduated last year. Their absence not only decimated Eastwood’s starting lineup, but it put players in offseason leadership roles they never had experienced before.

“We came out kind of rough. I mean, there’s a lot of new faces this year,” said senior quarterback Gavin Slattman. “About halfway through summer, we all got our techniques down and we all started doing the little stuff right.”

Film study

The Eagles’ defense prides itself on being the “Red Swarm,” a defensive unit that swiftly closes in on whoever has the ball. This mentality traditionally prevails, particularly last season when the team held opponents to under 10 points per game.

However, their stingy defense isn’t just the result of a mantra — it’s the outcome of a coaching staff that labors over film and technique. Rutherford often breaks the team out into groups to dissect recordings of previous games. At a practice last week, they huddled together in the locker room because they were stretched for time. Team pictures fell right in the middle of the five-hour practice.


On three screens displaying the same synchronized images, they reviewed game tape from one of last year’s matchups against an opponent the Eagles face again in 2018. Rutherford admittedly splits hairs, but it’s part of what makes the team successful.

“We probably should’ve had an interception here,” he said early in the session, then later added something like, “That probably should’ve been a bigger play for them.” Never mind the fact that the end of each clip usually results in nothing more than a short yardage gain or the quarterback throwing the ball away.

“Now it’s into the nit-picky stuff, and we’re working hard on that,” said senior lineman Reid Buchman. “We’re all busting our back to make sure the underclassmen see how hard it is to play football, but if you work hard, it’s definitely worth it.”

At the end of each session, he asked his players if they had anything they wanted to watch or if they had any questions. All the players have access to upcoming opponent film online through Hudl, so they could’ve already watched the same tape earlier this offseason.


After a sequence of warm-ups and stretches, the Eagles worked right away at the center of their practice field. Coaches stood among the players, and Rutherford kept his back to the defense and flashed sheets of play calls to his offense. After taking a moment to determine the call, they mocked the actual play against a defense. Coaches asked the defense to call out what looks the offense is presenting them — it’s like football’s version of a pop quiz.

“We’re getting to the point in the preseason where things are starting to smooth out, really on both sides of the ball,” Eric Rutherford said. “We want to come out and be our best every single week. We can’t control the end of the season yet — we can only control Week One.”

Soon after, the team split for individual position drills as country music started blaring across the field. Linebackers worked through drills where they try to spot what an offense is doing based on the offensive line’s stances. The eldest Rutherford worked with his offensive linemen, developing their first step by tasking them with stepping the same way, in unison, at the sound of the whistle. Defensive linemen worked on the sleds, pushing upright until making a second step to mimic a pass rush. Receivers snagged passes from a coach, and defensive backs backpedaled in unison based on the direction Eric Rutherford pointed a football.

“Nine guys doing the right thing gets us a win,” he called out, asking his defenders to imagine a fourth-and-eight scenario with under two minutes to play. “Nine guys doing the wrong thing gets them a first down.”

The team reconvened at midfield just before 6 p.m., and they ran more live-action scenarios, just with more vigor than before. Even when the ball isn’t in play, the Eagles acted like it is. After each whistle, an assistant coach shouted, “1, 2, 3,” and the players responded with “swarm” in unison.

It’s still plenty light-hearted at times — Rutherford said his assistant coach “isn’t Aaron Rodgers” when he missed an open man during the drill — but practice was just as meticulous as the film session. At one point, they even practiced how defenders should block downfield for an interception. These late-summer dress rehearsals are painstakingly specific.

“We want to push ourselves as much as possible, no matter how much we’re practicing,” said sophomore running back Jaden Rayford, who set a single-season school record last season with 36 touchdowns. “We like to make sure everything’s crisp, everything’s all right.”

This is the intensity that goes into Friday nights. This is the preparation needed for kickoff every week, starting Friday at Ottawa-Glandorf. This is the work ethic needed to reach their goals — win each week, then win the league, make the playoffs, and finally, win that elusive state championship.

“We’re trying to get faster, we’re trying to get stronger, we’re trying to get the fundamentals down,” Rutherford said. “Those are our main goals during the summer.”

—Jimmy Miller


Where football is family

Katie Rausch/The Blade

LIBERTY CENTER — Perhaps no other location in northwest Ohio captures the essence of small-town, Friday night high school football like the Henry County village of Liberty Center. This cozy farm community has a population of 1,180, and you can bet most of them are fans of the Liberty Center Tigers, who have been playing the sport since 1914.

With traditionally one of the smaller enrollments in the Northwest Ohio Athletic League, the Tigers are known for making up for what they lack in collective size with a trademark combination of grit and determination. That reputation is a considerable source of pride to their loyal fan base.

Generations of players have come from the same family trees, and three of these entrenched families were represented at Tiger Stadium last year, when the school honored returning players from 1997 for the 20th anniversary of Liberty Center’s Division V state championship team.

• Kip and Cecilia Kern are the unofficial king and queen of Liberty Center fans, and a parking space is saved for them just a few feet from the entry gate to the stadium. Kip, who is 91, has missed only one Tigers game — home or away — since 1954, and Cecilia, 88, has missed just three in that time. One of those she missed was because she went into labor for the birth of one of the couple’s three children. For the record, Kip did not miss that one.

Lifelong Liberty Center residents, the Kerns have 11 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Many of the boys have played football for the Tigers, as Kip did from 1941-43 before he enlisted in the Army near the end of World War II. Four of their grandchildren (Keith and Kenzy Kern, and Troy and Sean Westhoven) have earned All-Ohio honors.

“There’s no place like Liberty Center,” Cecilia said. “I’ve always lived here, all of our children and grandchildren graduated from Liberty Center, and now our great grandchildren are coming here.

“There’s no town that has better football than Liberty Center. The [fans] are always behind the team, even if we’re losing.”

• Jack and Marilyn Krueger, now 80, were born on the same day, Dec. 24, 1936, Jack in Henry County Hospital, Marilyn at home — and as Jack jokes, “We were also married on the same day.”

Jack, who played football for the Tigers, later served as the team’s public address announcer at games for more than 40 years. Their sons, Joe and Phil, also played football at Liberty Center, the latter on the Tigers’ first playoff team in 1980.

“What’s most impressive is the size of our town and how well we support athletics,” Jack Krueger said. “We just have a unique community because of the work ethic we have here.”

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• Tom and Patsy Mohler, both 67, are 1968 Liberty Center grads and were high school sweethearts. They have been married 47 years.

As his father and grandfather did, Tom played football for the Tigers and later was an assistant coach in the program from 1969-97. He was a member of the staff when highly successful head coach Rex Lingruen began his 32-year career in 1985.

Coming full circle, sons Rob (class of 1996) and Casey Mohler (1997) played for Lingruen, and — after 17 years as a Tigers assistant — Casey succeeded Lingruen as head coach to start this season.

“It’s a small community, and there’s not much else to do in Liberty Center, so everything revolves around the school,” Tom Mohler said. “Whether it’s band, football, basketball, or whatever, it focuses on the school. The district has a good following that supports the school, and it’s just tradition.

“Your father played, and your brother played, and your sons played. So many people stay here, and about everybody is related to somebody in the community. It’s cousins playing with cousins, and aunts and uncles watching them. It’s a family-type atmosphere.”

—Steve Junga


Flying high with no net

Jeremy Wadsworth/The Blade

Abby Martinez knows how much goes into completing a successful stunt. If the stunt comes down, it may not be one person’s fault.

My favorite part of Friday nights is the feeling of being part of something bigger than just our cheer team. We get to come together with everyone in our community to continue the Friday night traditions of our school.

Springfield cheerleader Olivia Holley

Martinez, a 2012 Lake graduate, is in her first year coaching cheerleading at her alma mater. On a recent summer evening, she led her team through an open gym practice at the middle school, running through tumbling, jumps, and stunts.

The stunts, also known as mounting, require trust and skill. As two girls raise another into the air, the base is created. Another girl is in the back, ready to catch the flyer, the girl at the top.

To properly pull off the stunts, modern cheerleading teams need more athleticism than they may have required in the past.

“We’re actually true athletes, so we’re using a lot of skill and muscle,” Martinez, 24, said. “And when we do that, we’re grabbing [the crowd’s] attention, but we’re doing it in a way to cheer the boys on and to cheer the team on.”

Falling is a part of cheerleading, but Martinez needs to respond with support. Like so many things in life, recovery isn’t easy when you’ve been knocked down.

“We don’t expect perfection, that’s really unrealistic,” Martinez said.

Cheerleaders don’t perform on an island. They’ll interact with the student section and marching band during games. The Flyers run around with flags that spell out Lake in their efforts to grab the crowd’s attention.

“We interact very closely with [the student section] and we cheer with them through class cheers and different cheers that they request to do,” said Jaelyn Fairchild, a senior at Lake.

Assistant coach Kim Goetz worked with Martinez at Genoa High School when Martinez was a volunteer assistant there. Goetz wants to help provide spirit for the football team, whether it’s decorating lockers or decorating the school.

“I think it will be good for them, too,” Goetz said. “Get the girls involved with the football players, and basketball team when that’s around.”

The team practices twice a week during the school year. The full squad didn’t practice together this summer, so the team focused on game day material to begin the season.

It’s not just about Friday night football, though. Cheerleading competitions are televised on television networks such as ESPN. Martinez has her sights on the OASSA’s State Cheerleading and Dance Championships for a sixth straight year.

The squad’s routine consists of tumbling, dancing, and stunting. With Lake being in a stunting division, Martinez said judges will be looking closely at the team’s execution on stunts. Having consistent, solid execution on their stunts will be important.

“They’re looking to make sure our stunts go up in the air, and they don’t come down,” Martinez said.

And Martinez knows that truly takes a team effort.

—Cameron Fields


One of the hardest jobs in football

Katie Rausch/The Blade

Mark Kuhn considers officiating high school football on Friday nights as very special. He works with the same crew throughout the season, and enjoys spending time with those friends.

In his 13-year career as a high school sports official, Kuhn has watched some of Toledo’s best talent, like Baltimore Ravens defensive end Chris Wormley, who graduated from Whitmer High School. He’s also watched twin brothers Nick and Nate Holley, who are fighting for a roster spot with the Los Angeles Rams. The Holley brothers are Whitmer graduates as well.

“It’s fun,” Kuhn said. “Seeing the kids all fired up to be out there, being involved with that, that’s a big part of being an official.”

This summer, Kuhn taught aspiring high school football officials. As he stood at the front of a room in Sylvania Tam-O-Shanter, he instructed a group of 11 wanna-be officials on different high school football rules. Kuhn spoke about what qualifies as a catch in high school football, as well as the difference between clipping and blocking in the back. He also spoke about the importance of speaking with coaches when they have questions, and offered a very important piece of advice.

“If you don’t see it, don’t call it,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn works as a lighting designer at MDA Engineering in Maumee. He also teaches the new officials class for high school baseball along with high school football. Before the start of the season, new officials must take at least 25 hours of class time. Thirteen people were enrolled in the class on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Before Kuhn and fellow official Steve Traxler lectured on the rules of the game, physical therapist Kaitlyn Krizman discussed exercising and injury prevention. Krizman, who is Kuhn’s niece, lectured on the importance of strength training exercises such as calf raises, squats, and lunges.

As Krizman also spoke about doing cardio and aerobic exercises, Traxler briefly chimed in. “Get your heart rate up,” Traxler said to the group.

Traxler mentioned that though football plays are quick and there is downtime, each official should still be in good condition.

“In season you want to try to maintain this conditioning that you’ve worked up to,” Krizman said.

After the classroom portion of the evening, the group went to the field house to learn different ways to blow their whistles and throw flags.

Fellow officials Thom Dart and Rami Mansour taught the class with Kuhn and Traxler. The first activity for the officials was learning different ways to blow their whistles.

“When we’re killing a play, one hard whistle,” Kuhn said to the group.

As the group started the exercise, they stood in a line. Each official had to practice blowing a quick gust of air into their whistles.

“You should have little bite marks in your whistle after your first game,” Dart said.

As the class prepares for the season, aspiring officials must earn a 75 percent on two written exams. One of the exams is on the rules, and the other is on mechanics, such as knowing where they need to be on the field and different flag throwing motions.

Kuhn wants people to know there is a need for officials in sports other than football. He said the job as an official is something people tend to not want to do anymore.

Still, he thinks this class is an engaged, interested group. He’s had classes before where people weren’t really interested.

“It seems like this class is going to be really good,” Kuhn said.

—Cameron Fields


Providing a healing touch

Andy Morrison/The Blade

Before an early October meeting between two winless high school football teams, Bowsher athletic trainer Meghan Gregoire wraps tape around wrists and ankles.

Before its game against Rogers last year, the Bowsher bench buzzed with anything from political debates to pop culture references. The Rebels also watched their opponents warm up, speculating about who would take over at quarterback for the Rams.

“I don’t care who it is,” one defensive lineman said. “I’m going to add him to my highlight reel.”

In the middle of the trash talk and miscellaneous conversation was Gregoire, now a student at the University of Toledo. She’s been with the Rebels’ athletic program since August and will stay until the end of next year, when she graduates with a master’s degree in exercise science.

Two minutes before kickoff, she anxiously stretched and paced. She gets nervous right before every game, after all the players are wrapped and stretched and she’s met with the opposing team’s athletic trainer.

“No amount of training can prepare you for everything,” Gregoire said. “You can never be ready for every possibility.”

That’s not to say Gregoire doesn’t enjoy her job.

Gregoire trades barbs with the players, who she refers to as her “little brothers.” But there certainly are some responsibilities she finds less than ideal, such as stalking the sideline looking for players who are hurt but avoiding eye contact so that Gregoire doesn’t pull them from the game.

“It’s definitely important [to bond] because some of these kids, I wouldn’t know they were hurt unless I knew who they were,” Gregoire said. “A lot of times, they won’t come to you and tell you they’re hurt. It’s the way they act or the way they don’t act.

“You really just become part of the team. I honestly could tell you that they couldn’t get through a day without me.”

There’s also dealing with a player after an injury threatens his season. Gregoire understands the sensitivity to this process firsthand, as the former softball standout suffered a career-ending knee injury in high school. A doctor talked her through the grieving process, and he still remains her inspiration for her career choice.

Walter Windless, a junior defensive lineman who was sidelined all season by a torn meniscus, followed Gregoire along the sideline as she surveyed the field for injured players. They shared a brutal conversation in August about being unable to play this year, but she helped him through the grieving process.

“I kind of shut down because I just started to play more,” Windless said. “I thought I let down my team. She lifted me up as a player. I can’t wait to have her back next year, hopefully to some better results.”

—Jimmy Miller


Friday night's soundtrack

Jeremy Wadsworth/The Blade

The nervous energy is palpable in the buzzing band room.
The renowned Anthony Wayne Marching Generals are making final preparations an hour before the first home game of last season, and the excitement was unmistakable. Band leader Roy Young goes over the upcoming performance with co-director Adam Ladd in his office adjacent to a bustling room. The 159 members of the easily recognizable band are hurriedly putting on military-style uniforms, complete with colonial-style hats and bright white boots.

Senior flute player Sarah Pohlman-Beshuk is bubbling with anticipation an hour before the Generals hosted Clyde on Sept. 8.

“Making music is no small thing,” Pohlman-Beshuk said. “And we do it as a large group with all four grades involved. It’s great to be a part of. It’s my favorite part of high school.”

At the athletic campus in Whitehouse, the crowds show up early in anticipation of being treated to the Marching Generals’ pregame performances.

“Anthony Wayne is one of those communities that embrace their home games,” Pohlman-Beshuk said. “We can feel the energy in here too. We’re excited to show them what we’ve been working on the last couple of months.

“You want to impress your home stands. Our stands are filled by pregame. They come to see us, so there is nervousness.”

It’s no small feat to put on a halftime performance that included the band’s renditions of rock and roll classics “School’s Out” and “Fat Bottomed Girls.” The members put in eight hours per week during the school year. They memorize their music during class and work on drills and formations during practice after school.

But preparations first began the first week of August during two-a-days. The members practice from 8-11:20 a.m., then from 6-9 p.m.

“We pride ourselves on memorizing our music,” Pohlman-Beshuk said. “We want to make sure we are playing the right rhythms. We do that in class so that we can focus solely on the drills outside.”

There are even tryouts and cuts. Members have to earn a spot to perform during halftime. Of the 170 band members, 159 are chosen to play at football games. Young and Ladd sit down before the season and throw out ideas for themes for the performances. The Marching Generals have done shows based on music from Disney movies, the 1960s, and New York City.

“It’s then a matter of charting,” Young said. “One song might have eight to 10 charts.”

The directors plot the songs and formations on a computer program. Those charts are then distributed to the squad leaders, such as Pohlman-Beshuk.

“We pride ourselves on how we look and how we sound,” she said, “so we put in that effort. We want to impress people and represent the community in the best way we can. We need to look good and sound good.”

The band’s stellar reputation has earned the Marching Generals invitations to perform at big national events, including Thanksgiving parades in Philadelphia and Detroit. They’ve also performed at the Indianapolis 500 and at the Kentucky Derby.

“No club in school can say a group this big can create what we do,” she said. “This has been my favorite experience in high school.”


—Mark Monroe


Feeding the masses

Jeremy Wadsworth/The Blade

It takes a small armada of enthusiastic volunteers to smoothly operate the concession stands at Perrysburg’s Steinecker Stadium on a bustling Friday night. Perrysburg booster club president Chris Gulgin said it takes about 35 people to run the concession stands that will serve about 75 pounds of popcorn at a typical home football game.

Gulgin, who arrives at Perrysburg Junior High by about 4:30 p.m., said most of the volunteers are members of the booster club who have student-athletes in Perrysburg schools.

“It takes a small army,” Gulgin said.

The Perrysburg boosters operate out of a near state-of-the art facility at the newly constructed concession stand, part of the Huskisson Athletic Center that opened this fall in the north end of the stadium alongside I-75. The best-selling items this season at the always-busy stands has been a soft pretzel.

“We struggle to keep up with demand,” Gulgin said.

The crew will serve more than 300 soft pretzels at a game. In addition, the concession stands serve freshly grilled brats, hamburgers, and hot dogs along with the typical items such as candy bars, soft drinks, and pizza.

The specialty item at Steinecker Stadium is a grilled bologna sandwich, according to Gulgin.

“We will do about 600 sandwiches,” she said.

Booster club member Lisa Riddle handles the money, and fellow members Pete and Tina Carella organize the volunteers.

“We also have a grill team and our Booster barn workers,” Gulgin said.

The workers run two shifts and overlap at halftime, when its usually the busiest time of the game.

“Halftime is very busy. We build up before the halftime crowd and then start to wind down starting the fourth quarter,” Gulgin said.

The money raised goes to a variety of equipment and facilities for all levels of sports at Perrysburg.

“We have assisted with the purchase of the field turf [at Steinecker Stadium], which thus far has been our biggest contribution,” Gulgin said. “We have also helped to organize and sponsor the fundraising for the new Huskisson Center.

“We have also been involved in track equipment, nets, balls, ice machines, locker room remodeling, scoreboards, clocks, as well as record boards, and events to support school spirit such as sponsoring spirit buses to playoff events.”

—Mark Monroe


View from the press box

Kurt Steiss/The Blade

TEMPERANCE — Those who attend high school football games would be hard-pressed to know what’s happening down on the field without the stadium’s public address announcer calling the result of plays, reading messages, or reporting who left their car lights on in the parking lot.

Since 1995 at Bedford High School, those duties have been shared by the duo of longtime friends Denny Hubbard and Don Sloan. They are a pair who became close when their sons were playing youth sports at Bedford.

Hubbard, who taught for 39 years in the school system and coached four different sports, including football, for much of that time handles the play-by-play for the Mules.

Sloan, a quality manager for American Warming and Ventilating, does all the other announcements before and during the game.

Sloan and Hubbard have a seamless flow over the stadium’s speakers, and they have become the familiar sound of Bedford football games for more than a generation.

They also have high respect for one another.

“I call him ‘The Golden Voice of Mule football,’” Sloan says of Hubbard, who — to illustrate that this is more than just an impromptu compliment — holds up the sweatshirt he has brought to the game.

On the upper right chest area of the shirt, beneath the Mules’ logo, is the embroidered title: ‘The Golden Voice.’

“Denny is a great announcer,” Sloan said. “We play off each other real well. We know what’s going on. We just roll from game to game. We’re good friends. We see each other away from here as well. We go out to dinner.

“The biggest kick is seeing a game under the lights at a great stadium. The cheerleaders are great, we have a great band, and the fan base is super. The whole Friday nights lights thing is just a great experience.”

Hubbard has a special insight as he watches plays unfold on the field, having been an assistant football coach at Bedford for 18 seasons. Sometimes he still catches himself trying to predict play calls in certain situations, or even second-guessing ones that were called.

“When you’ve coached sports it’s exciting to watch, and we have a nice view from the 50-yard line,” Hubbard said. “It’s fun to watch the plays develop. I’ve been on both sides of the ball [offense and defense] as a coach, and I’ll think like ‘Gosh, they should run this play,’ or, ‘Man, this looks good.’ I get carried away sometimes.”

Since the arrival of current head coach Jeff Wood, Sloan and Hubbard have been treated to the best football era in Bedford’s history.

Since 2008, the Mules are 68-30, have won three Southeastern Conference Red Division titles, and qualified for the Michigan playoffs six times in nine years.

“I’ve been around here for more than 50 years,” said Hubbard, a 1967 Bedford graduate. “They’ve got a system going now, and they stick with it. The kids believe in it, and they’re getting in that weight room and working hard.

“It’s fun announcing the game, but it makes it easier if you’re winning.”

—Steve Junga