Williamsport transformed itself from 2-8 two years ago

ALTOONA — Even the players wondered if something like this was possible.

Yes, Pittsburgh Central Catholic ended Williamsport’s dream-like season, winning Saturday’s Class 6A state quarterfinal, 62-21. But honestly, who in their right mind ever thought Williamsport would be playing in the state quarterfinals just two years ago? The Millionaires were fresh off a 2-8 season that culminated a four-year stretch in which they won eight total games.

But week after week, Williamsport transformed its image, reversed its culture and made all things seem possible. The Millionaires (12-2) won their first district championship since 1995, went deeper into the state tournament than ever before and matched the program-record for single-season wins. While there is still work to do, the thought of Williamsport some day winning a state championship no longer seems far-fetched even in an unfair PIAA system that lets private schools operate under their own advantageous rules.

One of the best Williamsport seasons ever ended Saturday at Mansion Park, but the good times might just be getting started.

“My first year we were 2-8. If you told me we would be 12-2 two years later I would have never believed you,” two-way starting lineman Kurt Danneker said. “The work we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished makes me so proud of my team.”

“We’re going to keep pushing and keep going,” running back Treyson Potts said after becoming just the second player in program history to top 2,000 yards. “We’ve just gotten started. We’re going to keep this train going.”

The train started gathering steam last season when coach Chuck Crews arrived and Williamsport went 6-5, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2010. It was just the third winning season Williamsport recorded since 2002 but it gave Williamsport a taste.

The Millionaires grew hungrier, worked harder throughout the offseason and the finished product revealed itself in spectacular fashion all season. Williamsport averaged a state-best 510 yards per game entering the quarterfinals as well as 48.8 points per game. The Millionaires battered a series of solid opponents, routed Delaware Valley, 55-21 in the district final and downed perennial power State College, 35-28 in the opening round of states, a result not as close as the score indicated.

Five players made strong all-state campaigns, especially Potts, Danneker, quarterback Isaiah Hankins (3,469 total yards, 41 touchdowns), 2015 all-state selection Ross Stebbins and Elliott Walker. So many more made huge impacts and helped this team place itself along some of the all-time great teams Williamsport teams.

The ending Saturday does not diminish what this season meant. There is a reason so many Williamsport fans lined Fourth Street as the bus left the high school grounds early Saturday morning. There is a reason so many fans attended each playoff game, including yesterday when the Millionaires played two hours from home. Like the players themselves, they knew this was pretty special. This team rose from the ashes, became a champion and established itself as one of the state’s best eight teams.

As far as turnarounds go, good luck beating this one.

“It means a lot. We came in during the offseason and we put tremendous work in,” Potts said. “We proved ourselves wrong when we got this far. It’s crazy how far this program has come and the obstacles that we’ve overcome.”

“This has been the best football season of my life. This has been the best Williamsport football team to come through here in 30 years,” Danneker said. “Seeing the sendoff today was amazing. The city was on fire for us. It was real magical.”

Williamsport did not play a terrible game Saturday. It simply ran into a powerful team that can field players from anywhere and that was performing at peak level. The Vikings (13-1) looked like a small college team when they came out for warmups and played like the defending state champion they are.

Williamsport battled to a 7-7 tie nearly eight minutes into the game and kept battling hard even when victory hopes were dashed by halftime. The Millionaires mounted an impressive fourth-quarter scoring drive that was a nice capper to the season. It revealed the Millionaires were as mentally strong as they were physically gifted.

“It’s been so great. We got the whole town behind us. It’s a well-deserved feeling because we worked so hard to get to this point,” said Hankins who finished his stellar scholastic career with 8,083 total yards and 92 touchdowns. “We’re not happy with the outcome, but at the end of the day, I think we can say we deserved this season and we can keep our heads held high. We’ve become a team, and we’re a great team.”

Now the goal is to make sure this is not a one-year wonder. Williamsport hopes this is a springboard to even better future finishes.

Williamsport loses 12 tremendous seniors from this team, but has a strong core returning next year. And a year after receiving a taste of success, Williamsport has taken a huge bite. The Millionaires have proven they can be an elite statewide team and now have seen firsthand what it will take to keep moving upward.

Emmaus thumped Williamsport in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, but the exposure opened the Millionaires’ eyes and provided a measuring stick. This season was no accident. It was the result of Williamsport using that last 2015 game as fuel and paying the price throughout the offseason. Combine a similar offseason work ethic with improvement, good talent and good coaching and Williamsport has the ability to build on this fantastic season.

“This humbled us a little bit and this should make us hungrier. If it doesn’t make us hungier we’re not going to be as good a football team next year as we were this year,” Crews said. “We’re losing 12 seniors but those guys who are coming back have to be hungry and they have to surpass what this class of 2016 established.”

More than ever, Williamsport knows it can do that. This is no longer a program defined by bad seasons or mediocrity. Instead of seeing teams struggle year after year, future players are watching a team become one of the state’s best.

“This was a great team,” Danneker said. “We set the standard for Williamsport football for all the future years ahead.”

Never underestimate the power of belief or success. Williamsport knows how good it can be. It knows it can grow stronger, too. It already has achieved so much in only two years. What once seemed like a pipe dream is now reality.

Williamsport is a big-time program again. And the Millionaires will be back.

Believe that.

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