When he started preseason workouts last August, Skye Stiner never envisioned becoming North Penn's all-time leading rusher.
At that same point, Lewisburg linebacker Brandon Smith wondered if he would take the field at all.
By year's end, however, Stiner not only was North Penn's all-time leading rusher, but also had broken the single-season record for yards while helping his team capture its first postseason championship. Smith defied the odds, playing all 12 games after being diagnosed with Spondylolysis, a serious back injury, while again having a season that made him a two-time all-state selection.
Stiner and Smith both had seasons to remember and both have been named Sun-Gazette Players of the Year. This is the first time two players finished in a tie after the Sun-Gazette sports staff voted.
The way both played, it is not shocking they shared the honor.
"I never would have thought at the beginning of season that I would be a Sun-Gazette Player of the Year," Stiner said. "Everything kind of fell into place. It was just crazy the whole season, it was just unbelievable. I don't think there's a single person who would have believed we'd have a 1,600-yard rusher and win an Eastern Conference championship. It was a season of big ups and downs, but everything fell into place, everything happened for a reason."
Smith can relate. The junior linebacker/wide receiver blew out his back twice in the offseason. In early August, it was determined that Spondylolysis, a fracture of the L5 vertebra, would end his season before it started. Instead, Smith showed he was as tough as he is talented, played all 12 games, helped Lewisburg go 9-3 and led the team in tackles, receptions and receiving yards.
"God has blessed me for sure this year," Smith said. "Coming into the year it got pretty bad at the beginning and everybody kept telling me to get surgery, but some people from my church and my mom and some other people just kept reminding me to stay strong and trust in what God can do. It blew out during some conditioning during a summer camp and that was the point where we had enough of it and scheduled surgery, but thankfully the Lord blessed me and I was able to play."
Skye Stiner, North Penn
Stiner entered the season as a three-year starter at running back and safety. He had put up solid numbers his first two years and helped North Penn improve its win total each season. He was one of many starters returning from a 9-2 team and he had big expectations.
Still, he never thought he would accomplish all he did. Stiner ran for a record 1,610 yards and 19 touchdowns while helping North Penn win its last four games to capture the Class AA Eastern Conference title. He bested Riley Bowen's previous single-season record by 151 yards and also became the Panthers' all-time leading rusher.
He is only 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, but Stiner was tough to stop, possessing a great blend of speed, shiftiness, vision and toughness. He was adept at gaining extra yards after contact and had the ability to turn what looked like short gains into long runs, sometimes concluding them with touchdowns. And when the pressure was highest down the stretch, Stiner was at his best as both he and North Penn made history.
"Not a single thing has hit me. I can't even wrap my head around it. I never thought I would have had any of these records," said Stiner, who always thanked his solid offensive linemen, Nathan Stettler, Nick Harer, Chris Makley, Tylor Rumsey and Derik Remley for paving the way to his success. "Riley Bowen had 1,459 yards and I looked at that number for years thinking, 'how in the world can you rush for that many yards?' I looked at him like I couldn't even walk in the same building as him."
Now there are plenty of future Panthers hoping they are the next Skye Stiner.
His final season was by far his best. Stiner carried the offense at times, topping 100 yards nine times, 200 yards twice and averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He also was a presence on defense, averaging 4.7 tackles per game, intercepting three passes, returning one for a touchdown and adding a sack.
All that was nice, but what meant the most to Stiner was winning. North Penn did nothing but that over the final four weeks. It was an impressive run for a team that had lost four of its previous five games and dropped to 4-4. At that point, the Panthers thought they would be playing out the string over the final two weeks. Instead, seniors like Stiner and the coaching staff kept the team focused and determined. Once North Penn realized Eastern Conference playoffs were a possibility, it started playing like one of the district's best teams.
North Penn blasted Muncy and Wellsboro, 55-15 and 42-6 to end the regular season and continued its dominant run a week later, thumping HAC-III champion Hughesville, 48-21, to reach its first postseason championship. What happened next was the greatest night in North Penn football history - and the greatest thrill Stiner has ever experienced.
The Panthers rallied from eight points down against Tamaqua late in the fourth quarter, tied it with two minutes to go and then went ahead 34-28 in overtime. That set the stage for a dramatic defensive stand. The Panthers made a fourth-down stop and took their place as the first team in program history to hoist a championship trophy. Stiner was a workhorse during that entire run, rushing for 463 yards and scoring nine touchdowns in those final four games.
A dream season had concluded with a perfect ending that not even Stiner could have scripted.
"Knowing that it was the last four plays of our career was incredible. It was like a movie," Stiner said. "We had to stop them and on the last play, you knew it was the last for your career. That was special. The whole celebration was just crazy. It was just magical.
"Even though we're from three different schools we always will be linked by that banner in the North Penn gym," Stiner said. "I'm sure Mansfield kids will go to the North Penn gym someday and show their kids that they were on the team that was the first to hang a banner in program history. It's a big deal to us, it really is."
So is Stiner.
Brandon Smith, Lewisburg
That Smith even played a down last season also is a big deal. Spondylolysis has ended several players' seasons, including former Loyalsock and Georgetown standout Kyle Van Fleet in 2002. On top of that, Smith also had a bulging disc. He was resigned to having surgery and missing the entire season in August, but as the preseason unfolded he had a change of heart.
Smith, who initially injured his back throwing javelin for a district champion last spring, comes from a football family, has started since his freshman season and was in agony watching from the sidelines. The back pain was no match for his heartache. At that point, Smith decided to try and endure the pain while giving it one last try. The coaching staff used him for a few defensive series against Milton in the season opener and Smith played well and felt fine.
The first test had been passed and a week later Smith showed he was officially back, playing every defensive series against eventual District 4 Class AA champion Mount Carmel, making a game-high 19 tackles while adding an acrobatic interception. Ironically, it was a day earlier when Smith was originally scheduled to have his season-ending surgery.
"There was about a week period where even walking was quite a hassle. It was one of those things when one day you would feel completely normal and then the next day you were walking like an old man who has a bad back and that's when I was down on the whole situation," Smith said. "A week after I decided to have surgery, I was watching everybody practice and it was killing me watching from the sidelines and the coaches were having difficulty keeping me still. That put the game under a whole different perspective."
Remarkably, Smith grew only stronger as the season progressed. By Week 5 he could not even feel the back brace he was wearing. Core exercises helped strengthen muscles around the vertebra and the pain diminished. And those outside Lewisburg watching Smith play probably never knew he was dealing with a serious injury.
Smith picked up where he left off last season too, again leading Lewisburg in tackles while adding 4.5 sacks and three interceptions, one that he returned for a touchdown. Smith anchored the area's best defense and helped the Dragons (9-3) shut out four opponents. If not for Lewisburg blowing out several opponents, Smith probably would have led the area in tackles per game. A player who has a nose for the ball and who is as smart as he is fast, Smith tracks ball carriers down all over the field and is as good against the pass as he is against the run.
The two-time all-state selection made 20 tackles in a 28-9 win over Mifflinburg, costing the Wildcats the No. 1 seed in the process. Seemingly in on every play, Smith is one of the district's best hitters, rarely letting a ball carrier get by after making contact.
Oh yeah, he is just as dangerous on offense.
Once Smith started feeling stronger, the coaching staff started utilizing him as a wide receiver. Smith was an all-area tight end last year but the coaches moved him to receiver to prevent him from constant offensive contact. All he did in his first year playing receiver was catch 26 passes for 501 yards and four touchdowns in eight games. The 6-2, 210-pounder who is receiving Division I interest, was great against one-on-one coverage and displayed nice hands while making some impressive catches, averaging nearly 20 yards per reception.
"It all comes down to whatever is best for the team," said Smith, who also ran for three touchdowns on 12 carries. "Running back is where they were going to put me this season until I got injured. They wanted to limit the hits that I would take and I'll play any position as long as it's going to be helpful for the team."
It is doubtful Lewisburg goes 9-3 without Smith. He is a difference maker on both sides of the ball.
The Dragons are 34-6 in Smith's three years and were within a called back touchdown of reaching a third straight district final. There was a time when Lewisburg was a laughingstock, winning 10 games combined from 2001-2007, but those days are gone. The Dragons are now a district power and Smith is a big reason why.
"Our senior players have been a great group of guys got to play with and I've played with them since I was 8. They have definitely made it fun for me and they helped me to blend in with the system and really helped me," Smith said. "We have a lot of thanks to give to the coaches. They are very intelligent, football-minded people.
"It's a different Lewisburg football than when my brothers went through. There's been a lot of change in the last five years."
Stiner and Smith have both been history makers at their respective schools. They live 70 miles apart, but they are now linked together forever.