On the surface, things looked bad.
Montoursville has endured only one losing season this century and it came two years ago when it went 3-7 and suffered several blowout losses. At the time, it looked like a stellar run that had made Montoursville one of the most successful District 4 programs was ending.
Instead, what looked like the end was just the beginning for a new era.
Montoursville’s Clay Stoner, right, and Garrett Evans, left, have grown up in the Warriors football program after seeing a lot of playing time as underclassmen.
Montoursville was ravaged by graduation following a 7-4 season in 2009. It also moved to the fiercely competitive HAC-II and a team that featured mostly underclassmen took its lumps. The Warriors consistently were playing more experienced, physically bigger and more mature teams. It was a tough way to learn but those underclassmen survived and have spent the last two years surging.
Now, Montoursville is a win away from returning to the District 4 Class AA championship and tries reaching that game Friday when it hosts defending champion Mount Carmel in the semifinals.
It seems fitting that the Tornadoes are in Montoursville's way since they have provided a measuring stick for the program's growth the past three seasons. Mount Carmel pounded Montoursville, 42-6, when many of the current starters were sophomores and Cameron Ott was a freshman. Last year, Montoursville closed the gap but the Tornadoes swept two games and took a district quarterfinal, 35-10.
Montoursville edged Mount Carmel, 41-37, seven weeks ago at Memorial Stadium, overcoming a 14-0 deficit and making a late stand to announce their arrival as a district title contender. But now the Warriors have to do it again to get where they want to go.
That Montoursville is in the district semifinals speaks volumes about how far this team has come the past two seasons. Key players like Ott, Clay Stoner, Matt Krezmer and Garrett Evans, to name a few, started on that 3-7 team. They never lost hope, though, and helped Montoursville improve to 6-5 last year. Now Montoursville is 8-3 and coming off a thrilling, come-from-behind, 37-33, win over Lewisburg.
The Warriors were pounded by Lewisburg the two previous seasons and watched a 16-point lead turn into a 27-22 loss against it six weeks ago. Those teams were still growing and learning. This group has put it all together, learned from experience and is now thriving.
"That was awesome because there was so much emotion in that game," Krezmer said. "Maybe you get a little down on yourself when it's 12-points down and you're thinking they've come back on you again, but we kept fighting and playing hard and it was perfect."
All those sophomores who started and took those poundings two years ago are now some of the area's premier players. Give credit to the coaching staff, including former longtime coach Jim Bergen for having them in this position.
Bergen could have walked into the sunset after another successful season in 2009. He knew Montoursville would experience growing pains in 2010, but he stayed on and never thought about his won-loss record. He wanted to help those young players be in the best position possible moving forward after he departed and wanted to ease the transition for the incoming coach. It was a nice move and it prevented current coach J.C. Keefer from having to assume a major rebuilding process.
Keefer took the baton from Bergen last year and those players kept coming along as Montoursville won its last four games to qualify for districts. How important it was to get that playoff experience was evident last Saturday against Lewisburg.
This group basically has seen it all the last three seasons and piece by piece has built on Montoursville's winning tradition. It has done things the hard way against a demanding schedule, so a 12-point deficit halfway through the fourth quarter could not rattle it.
"We easily could have said this is the same thing as the last time and cashed it in and the kids kept fighting and fighting," Keefer said. "They showed so much heart."
There was no easing this current core group into things in 2010. They had to enter the fight earlier than many before them. They took their bumps and bruises and wobbled. But they never fell.
Because of that Montoursville now has a chance to rise to the top in 2012.
Masse may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse