Montgomery sees rapid gains under return of former assistant

Those who arrived near kickoff endured long walks when Montgomery hosted Muncy last September. The regular parking lot quickly filled as did the practice field behind the Red Raider Stadium.

Eventually, traffic was backed toward near Route 405 and late arrivers were testing their cardio skills as they ventured toward the stadium. It was a scene unlike many Montgomery residents had seen in a long time. It was a scene many thought they might never see again.

Montgomery is a winning football program again. After so many years in the dark, the Raiders broke into the light last fall, reaching their first district championship since 2000 and hosting a final for the first time ever. The Raiders won six games, made a four-win improvement and finished .500 for the first time in 17 years. A strong foundation has been built and the good times could continue.

The man helping lead this rapid resurgence and revival is Paul Bozella. The second-year coach convinced his players from the first meeting he held that they could do big things. Montgomery started doing just that in 2017 and that is why Bozella has been named the 2017 Sun-Gazette Coach of the Year.

“Coach Bozella came in last year and nobody on the team really knew what to think, they didn’t know what would happen or how anything would go,” NTL-II Player of the Year Hunter Budman said. “He had a meeting with us during school about how we were going to change the program and take it back to how it use to be. Since then I don’t think we’ve taken a step in the wrong direction.”

“Coach Bozella coming to coach this team is the best thing to happen in years in our program and I couldn’t thank him enough,” two-way starter Eithan Marino said. “He puts so much time and effort into the team and trying to help progress some of us to the next level.”

Montgomery has gone to another level in a short time under Bozella’s watch. He was an assistant coach when Montgomery reached district championships in 1999 and 2000. He was determined to bring the luster back, but faced a daunting task. Not only had the Raiders gone 0-10 the previous season, but they had won two or fewer games 13 times since 2002 and endured five winless seasons during that span.

Instead of looking back, Bozella convinced his players to look ahead. It was time to forget about what happened and focus on what could happen. Then it was time to do the heavy lifting and that meant going to work. Combining near belief with a relentless work ethic has provided a powerful mix. Montgomery went 2-8 in 2016 and was competitive in most games. This past season, Montgomery went 6-6, was a few plays from being 8-4, won its first playoff game since 2000 and generated excitement throughout the community.

In terms of where Montgomery was, it has used warp-like speed and zoomed light years ahead in two, short years.

“A lot of people said it’s amazing how far it’s come so quickly and that’s total commitment from the players and coaches,” Bozella said. “The boys have made a tremendous turnaround. I’m happy with how far the program has come, but my bar is set pretty high for these guys. I told them during that first meeting I would give them everything I had and I need them to give us everything they have.”

That is exactly what has happened. Montgomery never lost more than two straight games this past season and pounded three teams that had defeated it in 2016. The Raiders also beat Sayre for the first time since 2009 and Canton for the first time since 2005, securing the district’s No. 2 seed in the process. Three of the six losses came by a combined total of just 19 points and Montgomery finished ranked among the area’s top seven in offense and defense for the first time in the 2000s.

Montgomery went from a team hoping things did not go wrong to a team expecting to win. A strength training program installed last year paid big dividends as players like Noah Eshenaur, Nick Pryor, Nick Winters, Rhyle Straus­baugh, Jensen Drick and Dan Beckley, to name a few, had strong seasons. Mont­gomery also produced a 1,000-yard rusher (Bud­man) and a 1,000-yard passer (Brayden Strouse) for the first time ever. The Raiders became more physical, more entertaining and more dynamic.

“Ever since he came in as the head coach he’s constantly filling our workouts and practices, along with game days, with positive vibes and encouragement on and off the field with everything going on in our lives,” Budman said. “We’ve changed the atmosphere in Montgomery in the past two years and that all came from him and all of his hard work, along with all the other coaches continuing to stay after practices and help progress us as a whole team so that everyone knew what they needed to do at any moment.”

Bozella is quick to credit his players, his coaching staff and the administration, including athletic director Mike Snyder and principal Joe Stoudt. This has been a true team effort, with every coach and player knowing their role and carrying out their part. Dale Shaffer coached the 1999 and 2000 district finalists and has been a mentor for Bozella through these first two years. Nate Hakes, Tim Thomas, Bob Kibbe, Matt Buck, Tony Wright and Tyrell Drick also have made a big impact.

Together, the coaches have coaxed the best from the players. Together, the players have made the coaches the best they can be. It is a reciprocal relationship and it continues gaining strength. Even before the season started, Montgomery was making positive changes. A program that so often struggled to field 30 players had 42 this season. Junior varsity and junior high numbers are strong as well and those could continue to rise as more athletes become eager to help Montgomery take the next step.

“For a small school we have a lot of boys who play football and that’s a credit to these boys and this community. This community is craving something like this,” Bozella said. “What I’m most happy about is the mentality that we’ve established leaking into these other sports. We’re a small school and we have to switch gears in the offseason, but if we create a culture and bond between every sport that will go far with the success of every program.”

Montgomery is building that right now. Bozella started a youth football program last summer. He is starting things from the bottom up and putting future players in a position where they will be more comfortable entering junior high and high school. As successful as this season was, Bozella, his coaches and his players are out to show this is not a one-year wonder.

“I couldn’t thank Coach Bozella for what he has done for us on and off the field. From a player perspective, he brought the football spirit back to Montgomery,” Marino said. Two years ago the team went 0-10. I didn’t play that season, but I’m friends with a lot of those who did play and they were all miserable with it. It just wasn’t fun. Two years later, basically the same group of kids who played then are still playing now and we made it to a district final for the first time in over a decade.”

Looks like Montgomery might have to expand its parking lot. This past fall was a start. The best could still be coming.

Past Sun-Gazette top coaches

2002–Scott McLean, Muncy

2003–Rick Reichner, Hughesville

2004–Tim Welliver, Warrior Run

2005–Rick Reichner, Hughesville

2006–Miller H. Moyer, Canton

2007–Dick Delaney, Loyalsock

2008–Todd Tilford, Lewisburg

2009–Alex Jackson, Loyalsock

2010–Todd Tilford, Lewisburg

2011–Bruce Ransom, Bucktail

2012–Chris Eiswerth, South Williamsport

2013–Tom Gravish, Jersey Shore

2014–J.C. Keefer, Montoursville

2015–Matt Hildebrand, Wellsboro

2016–Chuck Crews, Williamsport