After losing in the postseason, Montgomery eager to get back

SUN-GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Montgomery’s Hunter Budman runs against South Williamsport last year. Budman and the Red Raiders are hoping to get back to the postseason and possibly win a district championship.

Montgomery produced a memorable 2017 season, reaching its first District 4 Class A final since 2000. The Red Raiders made a four-win improvement, stunned most District 4 observers and the season could be considered a huge success.

Still, many players did not share that feeling as they left the field following last year’s district championship. Wyalusing defeated Montgomery, 28-6, on its home field. This team came so far, but its ultimate destination was not reached. That is why so many returning players are viewing the 2018 season which starts Friday as unfinished business. Just reaching the final is no longer good enough.

This time, Montgomery wants the big prize.

“We had a great year but this core group that were juniors last year, you could see it in their eyes after the (Wyalusing) game saying that this won’t happen again,” Montgomery coach Paul Bozella said. “As great as it was, you could see how hungry they were even right after that game.”

“I think that what happened in the district championship gave us a lot of motivation to realize what that felt like,” quarterback and linebacker Brayden Strouse said. “Doing something that hadn’t happened in a long time motivated us last year and now that (loss) is motivating us to where we want to do something Montgomery has never done before.”

Montgomery, which hosts Class A rival South Williamsport Friday, has made steady progress since snapping a 19-game losing streak midway through the 2016 season. That team won two games and was more competitive in losses than it had been in recent years. The culture really started changing last year when Montgomery won six games for the first time in 17 years, won a playoff game for the first time during that span and hosted a championship for the first time.

The Raiders scored 35 points in a double overtime loss at Wyalusing last October and led that game in the final minute of regulation. They liked their chances entering the rematch, but Wyalusing built a double-digit halftime lead and never let a huge Montgomery crowd come alive. It was a learning experience for a group that had never experienced something like that before. Eyes were opened and Montgomery will feel more prepared if it earns an opportunity like that again.

“The first time it happens it’s kind of like a whirlwind and everything is kind of coming at you at once,” said Strouse who threw for 151 yards and a touchdown in the final. “I think this year, now that most of us are back, that if we get there again we’ll know what to do and how to handle it and it will be a calmer situation.”

Strouse is one of 14 Montgomery seniors who has significant experience. He is a three-year starter on both sides of the ball and has thrown for nearly 2,000 yards the past two seasons. Running back Hunter Budman is back after leading the team in rushing and receiving, totaling 1,828 yards and 23 touchdowns. Several quality linemen return and linebacker Rhyle Strausbaugh anchors the defense after making 122 tackles and earning NTL-II Defensive Player of the Year honors.

“We’re a lot further ahead of the game than we were before. These guys have been running the system for two years,” Bozella said. “Last year, that team we had set the foundation. I think bigger things are to come for this group and our goal is to become more mentally tough and handle adversity better.”

This group has taken huge steps the last two years and now it is hoping to take the final one. That Montgomery is thinking championship speaks volumes because this was a program that had suffered six straight losing seasons and 15 in 16 years. Included during that run were 19 and 34-game losing streaks and five winless seasons.

Last year, Montgomery never dropped more than one game below .500 and was a few plays from finishing the regular season 7-3 after losing two games by a combined nine points. The majority of starters return on both sides of the ball and this no longer is a program that hopes to win, but expects to do so. Establishing that belief was maybe the biggest hurdle that was cleared last year.

“We still have a lot of good juniors coming back that played as sophomores, too. All of us have been playing for three years and we have a lot of experience and we’re going to put everything that we’ve been taught and we’re going to use it in the final year,” two-way lineman Daniel Beckley said. “Everything is just flipped. Everything feels so much better. It’s like everyone’s attitude is so much better.”

“It’s like back when we were only putting out 16 kids on the field a couple years ago, everyone expected Montgomery to be an easy win. Now it’s like the tables have turned,” linebacker Gage Yohn said. “Now we go and expect to win every game we play. It’s not us only having 16 kids anymore. We have 44 kids on our roster now all wanting to get better and to help Montgomery keep thriving.”

Montgomery opens the season with two games against fellow title contenders, hosting South and Canton. They are good challenges for a team that is now embracing those. What was a slight buzz surrounding the program entering last season has become more like a roar. The community grew enamored with this team a year ago and likely will be jamming the stands this season. Included will be junior high and younger aspiring football players.

What Montgomery did last season and could do in 2018 is motivating them as well. That makes both the present and future look bright. Now, the Raiders hope they can earn some shiny medals by season’s end as well.

“It definitely has helped inspire a bunch of the younger kids coming up and becoming more involved in the program,” Strausbaugh said. “We have a lot of pride in what we’ve accomplished but we’re not done yet.”