As Cowanesque Valley coach James Burns looked at his players huddle up moments following Friday's 48-12 loss at Muncy he saw something he never witnessed before.
Burns saw players crying. Cowanesque Valley had done plenty of good things and took another step forward, but that was not good enough. These players do not care about a history filled with losses. They do not care about moral victories. These players expect to win, and when they do not it hurts.
That might be the best sign yet as CV tries reversing a history that includes eight straight losing seasons since the school brought football back in 2004.
"The kids are pretty upset and to me that's good," Burns said. "I think we're maybe turning the corner and past the days when the kids are like, 'Are we going to McDonald's?' They're at the point where this hurts. We had a couple guys in tears after the game because this means a lot to them."
CV has won more than two games in a season just once since 2004 and has not had a winning season in more than 20 years. These 38 players do not care. They only care about changing the program's culture and they are off to a good start. The Indians rallied from a 14-point deficit in their season opener, defeating Montgomery, 49-21. Last Friday, they trailed 21-0 early in the second quarter but had a chance to make it a one-score game midway through the fourth quarter.
That speaks volumes. CV likely would have lost that opener in the past and would have crumbled early against a strong Muncy team that has serious NTL Small School and District 4 Class A aspirations. Both times, CV has fought back and showed big-play ability in addition to some old-fashioned toughness.
"We found out we had some players (Friday)," Burns said. "Sometimes you have the biggest guys or the fastest guys and when it's crunch time it's not always those guys coming through. We got a chance to get some scrappy guys in and I was extremely pleased in the third and fourth quarters when the guys fought back."
Nearly every player Burns used went both ways and played almost every snap but down to the game's last play, CV was fighting hard. It drove 34 yards in the last minute and nearly scored on a 55-yard touchdown pass as time expired. Players were cramping up, tired and hurting but nothing ever touched their determination. Nothing ever dampened their belief that they could make something good happen.
While these players want more than moral victories, they know that is an encouraging sign.
"We picked the intensity up and we just kept working," said quarterback/defensive back Brandon Whitesell, who threw for 146 yards and two touchdowns, made eight tackles and intercepted a pass despite taking hits on nearly every pass play. "From the past few years till now we have made a lot of progress. We just need to stick together and not get down on each other and just keep pushing."
That is what CV has done the first two weeks as a bevy of talented athletes have made big plays on both sides of the ball. Ryan Freeman caught five passes for 121 yards and a touchdown against Muncy while Luke Plummer added four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. Shea Daley made 10 tackles. James Burns Jr. entered in the third quarter and on his first play completed a third-down pass to Plummer after Whitesell briefly went out with leg cramps.
This team has speed, more size than in years past and maybe most important, a commitment to winning. Obstacles remain, but CV might be escaping its dark past and entering a bright future. This looks like a team on the rise.
"They have some nice, good athletes," Muncy coach Jay Drumheller said. "They're going to put some wins on the board this year."
ALL FOR ONE: Muncy is blessed with some outstanding depth. The Indians have good numbers and are using just about every player on the roster. The results have been impressive so far as Muncy is 2-0 for the first time since 2002 and has outscored two opponents, 68-19.
Where that depth proves especially critical is in the second half. Muncy has been especially tough against Canton and CV in the fourth quarter, outscoring them 33-0. Troy Hembury has topped 100 yards in consecutive games and, because Muncy is using five different ball-carriers, he has been tough to stop late, gaining most of his yards during the second half.
And whoever coach Jay Drumheller uses seems to make plays. The offense had its best game in two years last Friday and the defense has allowed only 31 rushing yards in two games. The bonus is that Drumheller has no worries about hurting players or parents feelings.
"They're playing as a team. When we substitute there's no issues. They come off, the next guy goes on and it's like a line shift in hockey," Drumheller said. "It doesn't always happen that way because sometimes egos get in the way, but nobody really cares about that stuff is nice."
PAVING THE WAY: If one wanted to find a South Williamsport football player in the offseason, a good place to start looking was the high school weight room. The Mounties were in there nearly every day of the week, determined to make the 2012 season something special. One look at the offensive line shows that work is paying big dividends thus far.
Starting linemen Justin Knee, Billy Kepner, Marco Estrella, Dylan Johnson and Brock Steppe, in addition to tight ends Heath Newcomer and Tyler Schonewolf, have been outstanding. The Mounties have a three-headed monster in the backfield with Brandon Stonge, Matt Bartholomew and Dominick Bragalone all having strong seasons, but the line is leading the way, delivering steady blocking and excellent fourth-quarter play.
"I wouldn't trade my line for anything," said Stonge, who has run for an area-high 244 yards. "They're great."
South has physically wore on solid Bloomsburg and Canton teams the first two weeks. South has rallied in the fourth quarter both times against teams that beat it last year and Saturday it edged Canton 22-20 in overtime. The line was terrific on a game-tying 75-yard drive late in the fourth quarter before opening good holes on three consecutive overtime plays that culminated with Bartholomew scoring on a 4-yard run.
The value of that all that offseason work has come shining through in the games' most critical moments. Instead of wearing down, this line seems to grow stronger as the game progresses and is a big reason South is 2-0 for the first time since 1999.
"That whole line is playing great. In Weeks 1 and 2 they have made a difference," South coach Chris Eiswerth said. "We just couldn't match up with people physically in the past and when you can do that up front you have a chance."
Dr. Masse's Top Five
1. Montoursville (1-1): Turnovers are plaguing Montoursville early this season and five turnovers sealed their fate in a 27-17 loss at Central Columbia. But the mistakes are easily correctable and the Warriors might cross paths with Central again if they keep moving forward. One loss does not make a season and the Warriors could become a better team if they learn from Friday's loss in which they led 10-0 early. Versatile Cameron Ott plays well on both sides of the ball and has scored four touchdowns on seven touches.
2. Lewisburg (1-1): One gets the feeling Lewisburg could be quite the team by late in the season. The Green Dragons are still relatively young and learning under first-year coach Jeremy Winn but hung tough in Friday's 27-13 loss to defending District 4 Class AA champion Mount Carmel. Lewisburg's defense tired late but with two-time all-state linebacker Brandon Smith leading the way, has the potential to be nasty. If the offense can find an identity in coming weeks, Lewisburg could again be in the hunt for a district title.
3. South Williamsport (2-0): Knee, an outstanding inside linebacker, had a good read on Canton's overtime touchdown. Or at least what was signaled as a touchdown. Quarterback John Bowman snuck from the 1-yard line but was met by a wall near the line of scrimmage. He pushed hard and referees signaled that he scored but Knee said he could tell Bowman's knee was down at the 1. Instead of getting angry, an experienced and mature South defense simply went back to work. Stonge made a terrific play on an attempted 2-point conversion, exploding through the line and dropping Tim Bassett for a loss.
"I was right there and he did not get in. His knee was down on the 1-yard line," said Knee, who made 11 tackles and forced a fumble. "We were a little mad after that so we had to put it to them there."
4. Muncy (2-0): The Indians are playing defense as well as at any point over the last 10 years. Senior linebacker Jake Colburn is a big reason why, already recording four quarterback sacks. Defensive lineman Sklyar Ebner had two sacks against CV and the defense has 10 sacks in two games. Scott Appleman has 2 1/2 of those but the stats only tell part of the story. Like a center in basketball who constantly alters shots, Appleman often blows up plays with his pressure even if he does not end up being the one who makes the tackle or sack. Only a sophomore, Appleman could be something special if he keeps working hard and building off his strong start.
5. Loyalsock (1-1): Far from doom and gloom, Loyalsock can take plenty of positives from Friday's 20-6 loss to Danville. The Lancers had several chances to score but hurt themselves more than anything, losing four turnovers. Like Montoursville, Loyalsock can fix those mistakes and that it was right there in the game with a heavyweight like Danville bodes well for it moving forward. The Lancers have little time to sulk anyway with games against Central and Mount Carmel the next two weeks.
Player of the Week
Brandon Whitesell, Cowanesque Valley: It's not often a player whose team lost 48-12 receives this award but anyone in attendance Friday realizes why Whitesell is worthy. The hard-working senior took a physical pounding and was hit nearly every time he dropped back to pass. Like a boxer, though, Whitesell kept swinging away and kept coming back, making big plays and throwing for 146 yards and two touchdowns. He was still breaking tackles on two nice runs in the game's final seconds and also finished with 10 tackles and an interception. Whitesell is a talented player, but he also is as tough as they come.
Game of the Week
Loyalsock at Central Columbia: The Lancers played District 4 Class AA title contender Danville tough and could add that label to their repertoire if they upset Central Friday. Loyalsock appears vastly improved from last year and Friday presents an opportunity for the Lancers to show what they can do against one of the district's best teams. Win that game and the Lancers will officially be back.
Masse may be reached at email@example.com and followed on twitter at @docmasse