Edsell lifts Wyalusing; Red Raiders have best season in 17 years

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gaztte Correspondent Wyalusing defenders try to stop Montgomery quarterback Brayden Strouse (38) on Friday at Montgomery High School during the District 4 Class A championship game. Montgomery lost to the Rams, 28-6.

One by one, Montgomery football players lined up at midfield and received silver medals. One by one, the public address announcer read their names and, one by one, Montgomery fans cheered.

Those names will not soon be forgotten. Whatever the future holds, those players, this team, will always hold a special place in community lore.

This was the football team that restored Montgomery’s football luster. This is the team that has started something good. And while last night marked one ending, it might also be just a beginning. Montgomery football is back and this team did the heavy lifting.

Creighton Edsell ran for 238 yards and three touchdowns Friday at Red Raider Stadium and Wyalusing dominated the trenches as it captured the District 4 Class A championship and won its first title since 2001, defeating Montgomery, 28-6. The Rams (5-7) defeated the district’s top two seeds the last two weeks and will play District 3 champion Steelton-Highspire in the state tournament next Saturday at Williamsport. It was not the ending Montgomery (6-6) wanted, but what a journey it was after going 2-18 the previous two seasons.

“I told the seniors they need to hold their heads high because of what they helped us to accomplish this year. I told them before the game whenever our season ends, whether it’s tonight, next week or five weeks from now, they’ve already paved out their legacy,” Montgomery coach Paul Bozella said. “This is going to be the team they are going to compare Montgomery teams to in the future. This is the team that is going to start something big at Montgomery, I can promise you that.”

They already have. Montgomery hosted a district championship for the first time ever and reached the final for the first time since 2000. It won six games for the first time in 17 years, advanced to the postseason for the first time since 2009 and changed the program’s culture after enduring so much losing over the past 16 years. And with a good core of players and a budding junior high program bolstering things, Montgomery appears built to last.

“We’re going to be a team to remember,” four-year starting defensive back Trevor Kennedy said. “It was fun. It was a great experience playing with these guys and bringing so many more people to our games. Playing the district final in my last game was the best thing I’ve ever done. I would rather do this than go to the Bahamas.”

Last night felt anything like being in the tropics. Both teams and fans braved sub-arctic temperatures that might have rattled an Eskimo. But defeat never dampened the spirits of those who jammed the Montgomery bleachers and sidelines near the end zones. Wyalusing scored twice during a 65-second span between the second and third quarters, building a 22-point lead. Still, no Raider fans left early.

As the final seconds ticked away, Montgomery students and fans flooded the field and congratulated both players and coaches. As Bozella gave his post-game address, the community surrounded the players and let out a loud ovation when the speech concluded. Their players might not have won the gold medals, but nobody can tell their fans that they are not champions.

“It means everything to this team. We thrive off their energy and their respect coming out on the field to congratulate us shows a lot from them,” quarterback Brayden Strouse said after throwing for 151 yards and a touchdown. “This season is going to live on for a long time. Even though we didn’t win, this is a team that everyone is going to look up in future years. We’re going to be a building block for the future.”

“This community is amazing. This year because we made it this far it shows more because we’re in the spotlight but this community always supported the team,” Bozella said. “I can’t say enough about how much I appreciate this as a coach, the opportunities this community give us. They support us no matter what we do.”

Montgomery’s tremendous turnaround season became Wyalusing’s night Friday. The Rams edged Montgomery, 36-35 at home in double overtime six weeks ago. Entering the game, both teams appeared as evenly matched as that score indicated and it felt like the game would be decided late again.

Instead, Wyalusing played its best game at the perfect time. A week after detrhoning top-seeded Muncy with just 36 seconds remaining, Wyalusing took its game to another level and gained a season-high 485 yards. The defense shut down Montgomery’s powerful running game, allowing just 79 yards on 30 carries as defensive end Jon Morrison repeatedly made plays behind the line of scrimmage. Edsell did not play until Week 6, but delivered his second straight 3-touchdown performance against Montgomery and he repeatedly gouged Montgomery, running behind an overpowering offensive line.

Edsell scored the game’s first two touchdowns in the second quarter and then ripped off a 70-yard score 57 seconds into the third quarter as Wyalusing opened a 28-6 lead. The biggest Wyalusing score, however, came in the second-quarter’s final seconds and delivered a mortal blow to Montgomery’s title hopes. Strouse had just hit Kennedy with a 17-yard touchdown pass that made it a one-score game with 53 seconds left and it appeared Montgomery might take a lot of momentum into halftime.

Quarterback Shane Fuhrey (189 yards), however, picked Montgomery apart, completing four straight passes that covered 67 yards. He capped the efficient scoring drive, hitting a wide-open Morrison with a 24-yard touchdown pass with just 8.3 seconds remaining. The score put Wyalusing up 21-6 but it like a lot more as both teams exited the field.

“I thought at end the of second quarter we started to pick up the momentum and I thought we were going to head into the locker room with the momentum but with under a minute left they went down and scored and that hurt,” Bozella said. “Sometimes when we face adversity and we get punched in the mouth we need to figure out a way to come back from that. We’re still in the stages right now we might not fully grasp how to do that. Once the momentum starts swinging the other way we need to learn how to dig our feet into the ground and come back from that.”

Following Edsell’s third touchdown, the defense stiffened and did not allow another point. The offense showed signs of life at times and reached Wyalusing territory three times in the second half but could not finish drives, even after Nick Winters ripped off a 41-yard kickoff return following Edsell’s last touchdown. Still, Montgomery went down showing the same determination that has allowed it to completely transform its program in such a short time. Strouse hung in against a tough defense and Hunter Budman caught six passes for 86 yards while finishing his season as the program’s top rusher in the 2000s.

The Raiders made a late goal-line stand, then nearly went the distance in the final minute for a touchdown, getting as close as the 7-yard line. Strouse made some pretty throws on that drive and especially on his touchdown pass to Kennedy. Strouse did his best Eli Manning super bowl impersonation on that throw, evading four tacklers, stepping up in the pocket and firing a touchdown over a defender’s hands to Kennedy for a 17-yard score.

“The play was supposed to go on the other side,” Kennedy said. “I read the cornerback’s eyes and I saw Brayden roll out and ran to the back of the end zone and got his attention and he put it up there for the touchdown.”

That play gave Kennedy a lasting memory. He and his senior teammates have so many more memories, too. Montgomery winning a district championship no longer seems far-fetched. It suddenly feels well within reach. Those players are a huge reason why.

“We figured out that we can actually do it,” Strouse said. “We had all those down years, but with this year we showed we can win football games and we can compete at the highest level.”

“I’m happy to have them on this ride with us and that they got to experience this,” Bozella said. “A lot of these guys are four-year starters and they deserve everything we accomplished this year and more.”