The towns that comprise Sullivan County might have been the state's most barren Saturday afternoon.
It seemed like everyone from Sullivan County was packed into the Montoursville gym. The District 4 Class A championship was still 45 minutes from starting but red-clad fans already had filled almost an entire side of the big gym's bleachers. Nearly everyone ever associated with Sullivan County and its sports programs wanted to be a part of Saturday's festivities. No Sullivan team ever had won a district championship and they did not want to miss it.
They did not leave disappointed.
Sullivan County fans cheer on their boys basketball team Saturday when it won the school’s first district title in any sport.
Sullivan rallied in the final two minutes and edged St. John Neumann, 34-30 while capturing that elusive championship. It was a gym-wide celebration as time expired. Students stormed the court and celebrated with jubilant players while Sullivan fans who often make road games feel like home ones stood and applauded.
It is a day every Sullivan team member and fan always will remember. This team turned a long sought-after dream into reality.
"The whole county might have been here," Sullivan coach Glenn Vaughan said. "I can't say enough about the support from our community and our student section. The faculty and everyone in the school has been great all year long. The community has been excited and into it all year and it's been a great ride."
The Griffins are hoping that ride continues in states and will seek the first state tournament win in program history Friday against Bishop Guilfoyle. One can expect the Sullivan faithful to once again arrive in droves. This is their team and they do not want this historic ride to end.
"They came to see us win a championship and we gave them what they wanted," said senior Sharif Welton, who scored 19 points and hit the go-ahead basket with 1:22 remaining. "They gave us what we wanted too because we have great support from our fans and our student section. They are always there for us and they help us out a lot."
The Griffins (22-3) have set a program record for wins while capturing the program's first league and district championships. The results are different than in the past but the fans following them have remain unchanged. Sullivan always has been backed by large and boisterous followings, especially when winning started becoming a tradition in 2003.
That was when Sullivan reached the playoffs for the first time in five years as former coach Pam Murray laid the foundation for future success. Players like Vinny Baumunk, Chris Hart, Kyle Nolte, Tim Bullis and Phil Baumunk, to name a few, helped the Griffins reach the playoffs in three straight seasons and reach states in 2005.
Vaughan, who played three seasons at Sullivan from 1993-95, took over a year later and Sullivan has missed the postseason only twice during his tenure. This year the Griffins are in states for a second straight time. Steadily, Sullivan worked its way up the district ladder.
Now it is at the top, finally its best team. One of the district's smallest schools has is experiencing its Hoosiers' moment.
"Coach Murray in 2003 is the one who helped get the winning started," Vaughan said. "We have great kids playing for us and it's a really cool experience to be able to come back to your school and do this."
After Sullivan finished third last year and reached the semifinals for a second time in three seasons, there was a feeling 2012 could be a historic year. Obstacles were many, but the Griffins rallied from a two-game late-season deficit to earn a share of the HAC-III title, coming back in the fourth quarter to defeat Neumann and Bloomsburg during that stretch, while taking a six-game winning streak into states.
Sullivan played one of its most complete games in the semifinals, beating Muncy 76-40 but struggled against Neumann. This time, the Griffins showed they are as tough as they are talented, shaking off their frustration and owning the last few minutes. Sullivan made big plays when they mattered most and it was starters and reserves both making plays. That has been a Sullivan staple all year. Welton is an all-state candidate and was brilliant against Neumann but this team has never been a one-man show.
It has been a true team, a complete team and now a championship team.
"In practices we get on each other but when it comes down to crunch time everybody has trust that they're going to make that stop, they're going to stop people on defense, they're going to get that rebound," said reserve Conner Wylie, who had four points, six rebounds and a huge late assist against Neumann. "This year we had most of our starters coming back and we had more confidence because we got third in districts and knew we were pretty good last year. We knew we could be really good this year."
They have been. Actually, they have been the best sports team in Sullivan school history. Chances are the players will say the fans have been the best ever too.
"Our fans travel well," junior Zach Meyer said. "We like that. It pumps us up and gets us going."
And that is why this really might be a community championship.