Playoffs a welcome reward for Bucktail

RALPH WILSON/Sun-Gazette Bucktail is coming off a win over Cowanesque Valley after three straight losses including at Muncy.

Bucktail cheerleaders could have spent their Sunday nights relaxing. Instead they worked. The cheerleaders created signs and decorated their school.

A day later the Bucktail football players entered and felt like kings. Wherever they looked, congratulatory and encouraging signs greeted them. It was a scene that plays out across United States high schools, but that usually is reserved at this time of year for powerhouse teams and tradition-laden programs.

Bucktail enters its regular-season finale against visiting Montgomery tonight at 4-5. But Bucktail is not like most high school teams.

Most high school teams can run full practices and go 11-on-11. Most teams do not need their coaches acting as players at practices. Most teams do need nearly half their male enrollment participating just so they can field a squad. Most teams do not have to ask for a late-morning Saturday game start because they have 15 available players, two who are brothers and will be involved in a late-afternoon wedding. Most teams dress more than 14 players each week and have more athletes standing on the sideline than they do on the field.

Bucktail is unique. And Bucktail is mighty good. Against all odds, Bucktail has won four games and is District 4 Class A playoff-bound. One better believe there is reason to celebrate.

“We’ve had good teams in the past and this is the most proud I have ever been of a group of kids,” Bucktail coach Bruce Ransom said. “I’m not disrespecting those other kids and teams either. I just can’t think of a team that has faced this type of challenge week in and week out and still worked a game plan and bought into it to do their best to work it and execute it. There are not enough words to describe what they’re doing.”

“We are used to having the odds stacked against us so we use that as motivation to go out and show what we are capable of,” two-way starter Liam Dwyer said. “I know that if this happened to a lot of other teams they would not have stuck together the way we have. We have performed our best with our backs against the wall.”

Bucktail is the state’s smallest public school and perpetually faces numbers problems. The Bucks fielding a 20-man roster is like a larger school team fielding a 60-man team. Bucktail started the 2017 campaign with 18 players and just two senior starters.

But, a year after going 0-10, Bucktail also started mighty strong. The Bucks blanked St. Joseph’s, 12-0 and held their own against Class AA playoff qualifier Towanda and Canton the next two weeks. Bucktail was down to 15 players in Week 4 against CMVT, but rallied to beat a team that features a 1,000-yard rusher and a three-time 1,000-yard passer. Bucktail overcame a second-half deficit, made a goal-line stand, grew stronger as the game progressed and won, 22-20. A week later, Bucktail routed St. Joseph’s 48-27 and things were looking good.

Then the injuries started piling up. Running backs Gage Sutliff and Blake Cannon both topped 300 yards rushing through five weeks, but both were sidelined by Week 6 and have not returned. Leading rusher Tanner Riggle ran for 293 yards and four touchdowns against St. Joseph’s, but was injured two weeks later. Bucktail had so few players that its Week 7 game against Sayre had to be stopped in the third quarter with it down 28-14. During that game and the following week, the team’s starting guard and tight end moved into the backfield out of necessity.

And yet, the Bucks persevered. Kutztown High School already forfeited a Week 10 game due to having to few varsity players. Bucktail can only dream of having a JV team. Its players are competing at varsity as soon as they arrive at high school, but the Bucks refused to quit on this season. They dressed 14 players the next two weeks against defending District 4 Class A champion and at Class AAA Cowanesque Valley.

It was impressive that the Bucks simply took the field. When they overcame a deficit and beat Cowanesque Valley, 26-19 last Friday the season really became special. CV had won the last three games in this series, outscoring Bucktail, 125-16. These resilient Bucks flipped the script, the offensive line dominated, Riggle ran for 208 yards, Dwyer intercepted two passes and they clinched one of the most well-deserved playoff berths in recent memory.

“At the beginning of this year not a lot of people believed in us. That really gave us a drive to win games. When we take the field every Friday night we go in with pride, no matter who we are playing because that’s just who we are,” Riggle said. “It’s really an amazing feeling going on the road and getting a win when you only have 14 players.”

“I think we found out that we can face adversity and have more heart than any other team we’ve played,” Dwyer said. “Especially against CV, we never gave up. We fumbled the kickoff and they scored their first play. But we knew we could come back and never stopped counting on each other.”

Counting players on the scout team defense is easy when the offense is practicing. One can do it on both hands. Bucktail uses its whole offense and the remaining players and coaches hold bags and do their best to simulate what the offense will face. It’s a similar situation when the roles are reversed. Ransom goes from coach to quarterback, assistant coach Josh Day rekindles his offensive line days and off the Bucks go.

It hardly is the ideal situation, but the Bucks have grown accustomed to it. Last year was an anomaly. Bucktail has frequently won throughout the decade and will be making its fourth playoff appearance since 2010. The Bucks are as resourceful as they are tough. They do not complain, they just make it work.

“Our coaches are outstanding,” Dwyer said. “They prepare us every week and set up great game plans to give us the best chance at a win. What I like best is that our coaches care about us as people and not only as football players. I feel like I could turn to them if I ever needed help with something outside of football.”

“We have to get creative, but it keeps practice moving. It’s efficient,” Ransom said. “We get a lot of reps and then are coaching on the fly. It’s useful time and one thing you know for sure, is there won’t be any guys standing around.”

Making this success happen is a true team effort. It has to be. When a team has only three subs at any given time, each player must make a positive impact. Bucktail keeps receiving those contributions, including from five freshmen starters. Whatever the grade, these kids can play. Riggle is among the area’s top 10 rushers, quarterback Richard Perry is among the top five in passer rating, Long has an area-best three 100-yard receiving games, four-year starter Cody Hand is powerful on both sides of the ball, Dwyer has an area-high six interceptions and Billy Yednak is among the area’s sack leaders with eight.

Everyone plays their part, everyone does their job. Often, sports teams refer to themselves as families. This team really is one. Though rare, there are families that have more children then Bucktail has healthy football players.

It takes a special connection perform the way Bucktail has and to overcome what it has. This team has it.

“We have all been best friends since elementary school. Nothing comes between us, and on the field we play for each other,” Dwyer said. “Every play I give 100 percent for them because I know that they are doing the same for me. When someone has a bad play during a game everyone goes and picks that person up so he can make the next one. We all have a great bond that won’t ever be broken.”

Bucktail knows it will compete in next week’s district tournament. If it wins tonight it would host a game as the No. 2 seed. Really, though, whatever tonight and next week holds is a bonus. Bucktail is all in when it comes to competing for a championship and the future is glowing.

But take a step back and look at what Bucktail already has achieved. The Bucks need no banner to validate their status as champions. They have faced obstacles most teams only have nightmares about and have hurdled them while inspiring their grateful community.

This is a team that should be remembered by all future Bucktail squads. To paraphrase former Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero, they will now walk together forever.

“I feel like this has been the most successful football season I have ever been apart of. It’s not because of the wins, it’s because we never gave up and we are staying together as a team,” Riggle said. “A lot of teams would have given up only having 14 players, but not us. This is something I will look back on and smile and think that not a lot of schools could do what we are doing.”

“There’s a lot of pride, a lot of happiness and good emotions. Our kids are flying high,” Ransom said. “You look at the big picture and this is quite an accomplishment. This is bigger than football. It’s a real tribute to the kids we have at our school.”