Despite graduation losses, Montoursville continues moving forward

Montoursville’s Mitchell Rothrock (47) and Riley Conboy celebrate a touchdown together last Friday against Danville in the District 4 Class AAA championship.

Montoursville hoisting a District 4 championship trophy is nothing new. The football program has featured sustained excellence and won four district championships since 2005.

Expectations are high entering every season, but many might be overlooking how impressive this most recent championship run is. Montoursville took huge graduation hits last June, losing most of their starters, including three all-state players, all but one starting offensive linemen and the starting backfield.

But here Montoursville is once again a champion after thumping Danville 28-10 in last Friday’s District 4 Class AAA final. The Warriors have won many district and league championships over the years but, considering how much needed replacing, this might be its most impressive yet.

“I think sometimes things get overlooked because of the success of the team over the years, but we really had a whole new team this year other than (quarterback) Brycen (Mussina) and (two-way starter) Tommy (Shea) who played really well late last year,” Montoursville coach J.C. Keefer said. “So other than a couple guys, it was a brand new football team, and I’m really proud of the way they performed.”

“We came in and coach Keefer was telling everyone he didn’t know what was going to happen,” two-way starting lineman Owen Hoffman said. “He said everyone was doubting us. We came out and showed we can’t just run the ball this year, but Brycen is crazy good. We came out and won a district championship.”

Now the Warriors (10-2) are trying to make a statewide splash and open the state tournament Friday at Wyoming Valley West when they play District 2 champion Scranton Prep.

Montoursville has won two district championships over the last three seasons and gave Class AA state champion Southern Columbia its toughest postseason game last year, losing an epic 56-50 district final thriller. In some ways, that loss felt like more than just the end of a season. It felt like the end of an era.

Four starters from a standout offensive line graduated as did all-time leading rusher Keith Batkowski and all-state defensive end Ben Cerney. So many other good offensive and defensive starters graduated as well, creating the feeling that maybe the newly-formed District 4 Class AAA field might belong to someone like Danville or Loyalsock in 2016.

But Montoursville never doubted it would reign supreme come November. One does not become a highly-decorated program for decades without knowing how to pick up the pieces, develop new stars and keep moving forward. That is exactly what Montoursville did as new players embraced their opportunities and showed they can also shine on the big stage.

“They have some great players,” Jersey Shore coach Tom Gravish said after Montoursville edged the Class AAAA champions, 36-33, in Week 5. “They’re a good bunch and they’re well-coached.”

“The expectation is still there. I’m proud of that, but people think we lost Keith, Ben, four starting offensive linemen, our leading receiver Dylan Fontenot, and it makes it really difficult to come in and be really good,” Keefer said. “We knew we were going to be deficient in some spots, but we worked extremely hard.”

It immediately showed. Montoursville again played arguably the district’s toughest schedule this season, facing the top three Class AAAA seeds in the first five weeks, meeting the other three AAA qualifiers and also playing undefeated Southern Columbia and Loyalsock. There was no easing into this battle, but Montoursville learned fast and kept winning.

The Warriors showed how dangerous they could be in Week 2, downing Selinsgrove, 20-17 and beating their rival for the first time since 2000. They won five games by five points or fewer, always fought back in pressure situations and kept finding ways to make key plays at the most crucial times. And the Warriors did it despite losing starters to injury and being on their third running back by Week 3.

Montoursville had ample opportunity to fold in those close games, but it never buckled and it kept improving while showing it is as tough as it is talented. Really, these Warriors symbolized everything their program represents.

“I know people kept saying they’re barely winning games, they’re barely winning games, but we were barely winning games against good football teams,” Keefer said. “We knew that. We just wanted to continue to get better.”

Montoursville has done just that and again is playing its best football at the perfect time. The Warriors did not need any late-game heroics in districts, hammering Lewisburg and Danville by a combined 62-10. An explosive offense kept producing and the running game came alive to complement a dynamic passing game. The defense has turned nasty, holding both district opponents to fewer than 180 yards and forcing five turnovers.

“When your top two running backs go down, I don’t care if you have Brycen and all those guys, you have to run the ball and play defense to win championships,” Keefer said. “It was a weird middle of the season because of the injuries to those running backs and we went to the passing game more than we wanted to. We’re totally capable of doing it, but now we’re back to where I envisioned this football team, which is running the football, wearing teams down, timely passing, and at the end gashing them with our backs.”

That is Montoursville football. The names change, but the results do not. All those championship banners prove it.