Millionaires not satisfied

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette
Williamsport’s Elliott Walker runs with the ball during Friday’s game against State College at Selinsgrove High School. The Millionaires are one of just eight Class AAAAAA teams still alive in the state playoffs.

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Williamsport’s Elliott Walker runs with the ball during Friday’s game against State College at Selinsgrove High School. The Millionaires are one of just eight Class AAAAAA teams still alive in the state playoffs.

The work is unfinished and Williamsport remains unsatisfied.

The Millionaires are still pursuing a Class AAAAAA state championship, so no way are they stopping and reflecting. But reporters and high school football followers can sure do that following a 35-28 state tournament win over State College, and before a state quarterfinal showdown with two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Central Catholic.

What Williamsport (12-1) has done this season is remarkable. Yes, the Millionaires are talented, but how far they have come in two short seasons seems unfathomable when you think about where they came from.

Williamsport recorded two winning seasons from 2003-14. That run included two winless seasons and no playoff wins. The program showed signs of life in 2009-10, posting consecutive seven-win seasons, but the bad times soon returned with a vengeance. Williamsport went 8-32 over the next four seasons and coach Chuck Crews inherited a team coming off a 2-8 season when he took over in 2015.

This was about as down as a program could be. Fundamentals were off, numbers were low and the stands often were barren of fans.

Now, Williamsport is one of the top eight teams in the state. This is like starting a week living in a one-room apartment and moving into a high-rise penthouse by Friday.

Seriously, come on. How many of you would not have laughed two years ago following a 2-8 season if somebody told you the Millionaires would be in the state quarterfinals in Pennsylvania’s toughest classification just two years later? And who could have blamed you?

Now Williamsport is laughing at everyone who doubted it.

“We set this goal in ninth grade and said we’re going to be district champions our senior year and we got it and we want to keep going,” senior quarterback Isaiah Hankins said. “It’s gratifying. It’s a true blessing. It’s a different thing for me coming from 2-8 my sophomore year and then 6-5 last year. People doubted us, but it’s good to have the community behind us. “

Crews put together an excellent coaching staff and immediately went to work after being hired. The task ahead was daunting. Having talent is one thing. Changing a culture is another. Williamsport had some standout athletes over the years, but could never put everything together. It seemed like the Millionaires would take one step forward and then three back. Teams did not expect to win, but rather hoped not to lose. When things went wrong, Williamsport rarely could overcome. Once bad times started, they often snowballed.

So while Williamsport going 6-5 last year might not have measured much statewide, it was a huge step forward. The Millionaires started believing in themselves, believing in the coaches and, most importantly, believing they could be great.

Crews did not let up either. He made sure his players were unsatisfied. Most starters returned this season and as soon as last season ended, the message was delivered.

Mediocrity was no longer acceptable. Crews wanted perfection and his players did, too. The problem with perfection in sports it’s rarely achieved. But record-wise, minus one game, that is what Williamsport has been. The Millionaires avenged that lone defeat in emphatic fashion, hammering Delaware Valley, 55-21, to capture the program’s first district championship since 1995.

“This has always been a dream to get to the high school level and just get to a district championship, so winning it was amazing,” sophomore running back Treyson Potts said.

Potts is one headliner on a team filled with them. He, Hankins and Elliott Walker are having monster seasons and have made excellent all-state cases, as have linemen Kurt Danneker and Ross Stebbins. But this is not a team with some shining stars and then a big drop-off. This is an excellent team, period. This is a team whose success is built up front with a terrific offensive line. The backfield and receivers are explosive, and the defense has played its best football at the perfect time with so many players in all three levels making key plays at crucial times.

Still, to make this engine really hum, one more thing was necessary. The Millionaires had to change their mentality. They had to show they could not only handle adversity, but overcome it. They had to show they believe they can win no matter the situation.

Consider that mission accomplished. Williamsport has overcome three second-half deficits this seasons and has handled postseason pressure well, fighting back after losing momentum in the district final against Delaware Valley and in last Friday’s state tournament opener against State College.

Delaware Valley scored 14 consecutive points and tied the district final late in the first quarter. Williamsport responded by scoring the next 41 points and inflicting the mercy rule. State College, a perennial power, recovered two onside kicks and completed two successful fake punts, but the Millionaires never buckled. The defense continued making big stops and Hankins totaled 310 yards and four touchdowns, displaying his poise as much as his talent.

The old Millionaires are dead. These new Millionaires are alive and are making their case as one of the program’s all-time great teams.

“The first couple easy touchdowns they scored, our heads would have been right down and we would have lost the game in the past,” Hankins said. “Our mentality this year is next play, whether it’s a dropped ball, a missed throw or a penalty. My teammates have my back and I have theirs and we just help each other out.”

Put it all together and Williamsport has gone from doormat to state title contender. That is not a misprint. This is all true.

That is what makes this run so special. Williamsport continues raising the bar and changing its image. A program that had not won a playoff game since 1997 is now three wins from capturing a state championship.

A few years ago, Williamsport adopted the slogan, “Return to Glory,” as it tried reversing its fortunes across the sports board. The football team accepted that challenge and is leading the charge. What a ride it has been.

“It’s amazing. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life,” two-way senior starter Jalen Jackson said. “So much has gone into this program over the last couple years. I’m so proud to be a part of this team. I’m proud to be a part of Williamsport. I wouldn’t want to play for any other high school in my life. You couldn’t ask for a better script.

“They talk about the return to glory. Well, the glory is here.”

Masse may be reached at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse.

COMMENTS