Montgomery to compete for first D4 title

Members of the Montgomery football team celebrate during a game this year against Cowanesque Valley. The Red Raiders, just a year after winning only two games, are hosting the District 4 Class A championship against Wyalusing on Friday. (KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette)

The Montgomery football players could sense what their success meant, but meeting five former players really drove that point home. What they are doing became tangible.

And it sure motivated these hungry Red Raiders.

Five players from the 2000 team that played in the District 4 Class A championship addressed the current team a few weeks ago. Nearly two decades removed from their playing days, Montgomery football pride still runs deep within them. How excited they are then, that this 2017 team is reviving the tradition. For the first time since 2000, Montgomery will play for the district championship.

Montgomery could go a step farther, too. A win Friday at home against Wyalusing and Montgomery would become a district champion for first time. Whatever happens, the Raiders will have an army of supporters behind them.

“We brought five of those boys in and it fired up the team. It was awesome,” Montgomery coach Paul Bozella said. “Our boys saw how much their winning this year and turning the program around meant to these guys. People have been comparing them to the 2000 team because that was the last team that went to the final. Now, they want to be the team to compare future Montgomery teams too.”

“Having the alumni of the team come talk to us really put things in perspective for us, especially the seniors who have this one last chance,” two-way starting senior Eithan Marino said. “It really made things feel so real.”

Those outside the locker room still might be having a hard time believing this is real. Montgomery (6-5) had suffered three losing streaks of 14 or more games since 2002 and had lost 18 straight games before last year’s halfway point. It also had not won a playoff game since 2000, never finished .500 or better since that same year and had not made the playoffs since 2009.

The thing is, these players and the seniors that helped start turning things around last year did not care about the past. They only cared about blazing a new trail. So what if those other teams struggled? The past did not have to dictate what they did.

Montgomery finished 2-8 last year and was competitive in most games it played. It was a nice step forward and gave it confidence entering the offseason. The Raiders put everything they could into the offseason, believing all the while, they could do something special. Now here they are, hosting a district championship for the first time while giving the program’s culture a total remake.

“We aren’t surprised. After we shut out Bucktail in our last game last year, we made goals in the offseason and hit the weight room hard, hit summer league hard,” Bozella said. “They saw the gains they made in the gym and on the field started to develop a more family-type atmosphere. Going into the season the goals were high. They weren’t random dreams, they were goals and they did what they had to do in order to achieve them.”

Montgomery opened the season 2-1 and enters Friday’s game above .500 for the fourth time this year. It lost two games by nine combined points and another by 10. Wyalusing edged it, 36-35, in double overtime up north in Week 6, but those close misses never deterred Montgomery. Following all three games, Montgomery won the following week and captured its first playoff win in 17 years last week, beating Bucktail, 47-6.

This is a team with a good mix of senior leaders who have helped the program rise from the ashes, mixed in with talented and determined underclassmen. This is not a one-year fluke because the varsity numbers made a big jump this season and the junior high program is strong in numbers and talent. But whatever the next few years hold, this 2017 team is the one that is getting things rolling. It has provided the foundation.

They have sweat together, worked together, cried together and celebrated together. Just as important, they have grown together. Montgomery possesses a strong bond and in the ultimate of team sports, that is something powerful. This year is proving that.

“This team to me really is a family. I grew up playing sports with all of them because it’s such a small school, so knowing and growing with each and everyone of these athletes makes it easier to have the type of season we are having right now,” said Marino, a former soccer player who has become a weapon on both sides of the ball. “We couldn’t ask for a better opportunity than this one that we have, so we are all very excited for this game.”

So is the entire town. No matter the sport, Montgomery always has possessed a passionate fan base. Fans still showed up when Montgomery was struggling, but the others are coming out of the cold as Montgomery warms their feelings and increases their pride.

Sports can be a great unifier and can give a community identity. Residents are feeding off their team and the team is feeding off them. It is a good time to be living in Montgomery.

“It’s something to go through the town right now. I went to the bank and they were all talking about it. I went to the Weis Market and they were all talking about it. It’s a pretty nice feeling,” Bozella said. “It’s like something out of a movie and these kids know that, too. They know Friday is going to be insane at this stadium. This is something they will never forget and we want them to just experience it and allow themselves to enjoy it.”

Montgomery has to enjoy it. Yes, the Raiders face a tough challenge against a strong team. Yes, it is a championship game. But this is a team and a program that has been kicked around for most of the last two decades. They have revived the program and started carving out quite an identity in team history.

It was not easy, either. This is the culmination of all that hard work and overcoming all that adversity. A championship game like Friday night’s is the reward. Might as well leave everything out there, play loose and have fun because this is something few get to experience.

“I think the environment for this game is going to be insane with almost the whole community and some from other communities there to support us. It is going to be absolutely phenomenal,” Marino said. “As a kid I dreamed of getting to play in a game like this, and finally the game is a reality.”