Looking for balance between the joy of winning a league title and the heartbreak of his season being over, Mike Clark glanced toward the Lycoming sideline.
There was a group of players, dressed still in their white pants and jerseys, huddled around waiting to have their photo taken together. It was a group of 13 players, a group which started 35-players strong, dwindled to only this baker's dozen which stuck out four years of football at Lycoming.
Watching the group pose for their final photograph together, Clark got choked up.
"We just lost a really good piece of our program," Clark said of the Warriors' seniors. "Those guys are awesome."
This is the third senior class Clark has guided through four years of football and academics at Lycoming, but this one is a little bit different than the rest. The class of 2012, which featured the likes of Anthony Marascio, Tim Okken and Glen Hughes, took the first step in building Lycoming back into the program Clark envisions it can be.
Last year's senior class, led by Parker Showers, Nate Oropollo and Cody Moyer, took the next step, controlling its own destiny for a MAC championship before dropping a de facto title game to Widener at home.
But this class, they were a part of all of it. And now they've taken the step to get them over the hump. They won a MAC championship, sharing the title with a Lebanon Valley team which earned the league's automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs.
This senior class has done more than just win a championship, though, they've brought a consistent contender back to Lycoming. There's still steps that need to be taken for Lycoming to get back to being the program which consistently won MAC titles and made deep runs into the NCAA tournament, but this season was a big step.
"We're good again," Clark said. "I wish we could still play, but it's not the first a team's had a (league) championship and not gone to the playoffs. But those kids will still get rings, they'll still get jackets. We'll take solace in the fact that we won a league championship."
"I wish we could go to the playoffs, but if you're complaining about championships, there's something wrong with you," Warriors senior tight end Greg Kovacs said.
If you need any more proof Lycoming is headed in the right direction, look no further than the hour following the season-ending win at Stevenson some two weeks ago. There was joy, having won the school's first MAC championship since 2008. After all, it was the team's goal when preseason camp began back in August.
But there was also frustration and disappointment. The conference championship was nice, but it didn't come with a playoff spot. Only two of the three necessary outcomes the Warriors needed to earn a playoff spot happened in the final week of the season.
A MAC championship was nice, but everyone in a Lycoming uniform wanted more. And they've come to expect more because of what this year's senior class helped do to fortify the Warriors as one of the best teams in the MAC.
"It's really a unique group of guys. They work on team chemistry. All the cliques are out. We're a family because of them," junior safety Tanner Troutman said. "They changed the program. They turned it all around. It's like being able to give back to them for all they've put into this to send them out with a ring. I'm really going to miss those guys."
Here's a closer look at the standout players from 2013 and the players to watch in 2014.
OFFENSIVE MVP:?Craig Needhammer, running back
Maybe the most consistent player in Lycoming's offense this year, he became the Warriors' first 1,000-yard rusher since Josh Kleinfelter eclipsed the mark in 2010. With 1,184 rushing yards this year, Needhammer has put himself in position to make a run at Kleinfelter's career rushing record next year with another season just like this year. He's a running back who has never missed a game in his career and plays much bigger than his size would indicate. His 41-carry performance against Stevenson proved just what kind of workhorse he can be.
Runner-up: Tyler Jenny, quarterback
The most accurate passer in Lycoming history, Jenny took a huge step forward in his progression as the team's starting quarterback this year as the coaching staff put more and more responsibility on his shoulders. He's beaten three ranked teams in two years as the team's starter and this year he led three fourth-quarter drives to give the Warriors a lead when it was trailing.
DEFENSIVE MVP: Tyler Denike, linebacker
From the first week of preseason camp, somebody was going to have to help pick up the slack for middle linebacker Kabongo Bukasa who had a knee injury, Denike did more than his fair share. He led the Warriors' defense in tackles and was a holy terror. Playing the season with a dinged up shoulder himself, the senior from Michigan recorded at least eight tackles in five games, including a career-high 11 against both Brockport and FDU-Florham. With the Warriors needing another big-play linebacker to help pick up some slack, Denike took control and became that player.
Runner-up: Tanner Troutman, safety
You could have made a case for Troutman to be in the conference's Defensive Player of the Year discussion after a season of eight interceptions, including three against Stevenson. He was the most impactful player on the team's defense. He hit like a hammer in run support and was a ball hawk with the ball in the air. His interception against Delaware Valley in the final minute secured back-to-back wins over ranked opponent for Lycoming.
SPECIAL TEAMS MVP: Zack Czap, kicker/punter
It was ironic that the two-time first-team all-MAC punter had maybe his best season as a punter but was named honorable mention on the all-MAC team. The senior was phenomenal, a consistent weapon in kicking away from potentially dangerous returners while getting both height and length on his kicks to flip field position. His three field goals, including a 44-yarder, helped beat Widener on the road, and he kicked one field goal at the end of regulation and one in overtime to beat Albright.
Runner-up: David Hahn, long-snapper
As the team's punt-snapper, Hahn started double duty - snapping on field goals as well - after the Warriors began having trouble with field goal-snaps prior to the bye week. He was tested right away with two clutch snaps against Albright at the end of regulation and overtime and succeeded with flying colors. He brought stability to a position that sorely needed it.
Offense: Nick Mongiello, fullback
If you haven't seen his touchdown run against FDU-Florham yet, take a trip to the MAC's youtube page and find the top three plays from Week 10 and watch it. Then take a minute and realize that's not what Mongiello is on the team for. He's an incredible lead blocker for one of the few teams in the league who still utilizes the position. But he's more than capable with the football in his hands of making plays which make a potent offense even better.
Defense: Kyle Sullivan,
Lost in the shuffle of higher profile players like Bukasa, Denike, Hentz and Troutman, Sullivan is one of the best pure athletes on Steve Wiser's defense. He has the speed of a safety, covers like a corner, hits like a defensive end and has the awareness of a quarterback. His 12-tackle game (including 2 for loss) may have been the best individual defensive performance of the year for a team full of defensive studs.
WILL BE MOST MISSED
Offense: Matt Atkinson
Atkinson was a quarterback, running back, defensive back and receiver in his four years with Lycoming, but found his home this year as a receiver. His 62 receptions were the third-most in a season in school history. While not the fastest or even most athletic of the Warriors' receivers, he was the best as creating separation from defenders and had maybe the surest hands of a talented receiver corps. He was at his most deadly when Lycoming needed a big third-down or fourth-down conversion.
Defense: Dwight Hentz
Everything Lycoming does defensively starts on its defensive line, and Hentz was right in the middle of it. Almost single-handedly he could negate a team's running game up the middle, instead forcing them to the edge where the Warriors' quick and athletic linebackers could make the play. Not a huge body in the middle of the line, there may not have been another player stronger than him when the ball was snapped. His 6 sacks and 12 tackles for loss led the team.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH FOR IN 2014
In a season where the Warriors had little experienced depth at end, Smith became an instant impact player, including starting six games. He recorded 21 tackles, including one sack and four for loss. He has the speed, quickness and strength to be a wrecking ball at end. He's a part of a youthful corps of ends who could turn a position of question into a position of strength in 2014.
The true freshman was part of a six-man rotation for much of the season, playing at both guard and tackle. He started the final four games of the season, two at left guard while Matt Patterson battled an ankle injury. He caught head coach Mike Clark's eye during the preseason and didn't disappoint. At 6-foot-3, 285 pounds he's bigger than most Lycoming offensive lineman, but his athleticism makes him capable of matching up with the best of the league's defensive linemen.
The sophomore showed why he was a Division II scholarship player in his time on the field. He recorded just 10 catches as the fourth option in a deep receiving corps. But the combination of Talerico, Ryan Umpleby and John Sibel will give the Warriors potentially the best three-headed monster in the league next year. His touchdown reception against Delaware Valley turned out to be the winning score. Expect him to be even more involved in the offense next year, potentially in the role Atkinson played this year.
Mitch Rupert covers Lycoming football for the Sun-Gazette and can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.