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Decade’s best No. 2: J.C. Keefer kept Montoursville’s tradition going strong in football

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in a series looking back at the top 10 football teams, coaches, games and players from last decade

Montoursville has long featured one of District 4’s best football traditions with excellent coaches leading the way. Chuck Bowman enjoyed an outstanding run before Jim Bergen took over in the late 1980s and put together one of the most impressive resumes in area history.

So imagine the pressure J.C. Keefer could have felt when he became the program’s new coach in 2011.

The thing is nobody has bigger expectations than Keefer so any external pressure is not felt. And Keefer believes in his players and fellow coaches so much that confidence permeates throughout his teams each season.

The tradition continues going strong.

Keefer helped Montoursville enjoy one of its finest decades, leading it to four district championships, two league titles and 78 wins in his nine seasons. Montoursville suffered just one losing season during that time and followed it with back-to-back league and district titles. Keefer’s teams have gone 78-36 and his .684 winning percentage is among the best in District 4.

“Coach Keefer means everything to us,” all-state linebacker Logan McKeag said following a 2014 district championship win against Loyalsock. “He pumps us up when we’re down. He’s our motivation.”

That is why I had no doubt Keefer would keep Montoursville among the districts’ elite programs when he moved from assistant to head coach nine years ago. Coaching sometimes is part Xs and Os, part preparation and part salesmanship. Keefer excels at all three, but especially thrives at igniting his players’ motors.

I learned that from experience. Keefer coached Montoursville baseball in 2010 and the Warriors had just lost a lop-sided game at Jersey Shore, eliminating it from league title contention. Keefer was not negative when meeting with the media afterward. It was the complete opposite. Just watch he said. The Warriors were going to take off, play great and win a district championship. He was calm, but assertive and convincing and I remember wanting to put on a uniform right there and go play for him. Imagine how his players must have felt hearing the same messages every day. Right on cue, Montoursville started playing its best baseball, beat a series of strong opponents and captured that district title.

That same message has brought out the best in his football players over the past nine seasons.

“He is a great motivator,” quarterback Hunter Shearer said after Keefer was named the 2018 Sun-Gazette Coach of the Year. “He’s always making sure everyone is picking everyone up and making sure we bring the energy before games and making some situations into competitions whether in the weight room or on the field.”

Montoursville’s players turned Keefer’s words into actions during his first season. Coming off a rare losing campaign, the Warriors started 2-4, but surged down the stretch, won their last four regular-season games and reached districts. A year later, Montoursville again improved, going 8-4, winning its first playoff game since 2008 and reaching the district semifinals. A 10-win season followed that before Keefer put together one of his finest coaching performances in 2014.

A young Warriors team started 3-4. It beat Class A state finalist South Williamsport, 38-36 in its season opener but lost four of its next six games, two in heartbreaking fashion. When Selinsgrove hammered Montoursville, 35-0 in Week 7 it appeared this season was going nowhere. Again, Keefer guaranteed his team they would achieve greatness. It was a different sport, but his post-game speech mirrored that one delivered four years earlier on the Jersey Shore baseball field.

“Getting off the bus after Selinsgrove, we’re 3-4 and coach Keefer said, ‘You boys are going to win a district championship,'” senior two-way starter Curtis Miller said that year. “He instilled that in us.”

And again Keefer was right. The Warriors did not lose again until the state tournament, beating six straight strong opponents and capturing the program’s first District 4 Class AA championship since 2006. Included in that stretch was a 26-14 semifinal win at Southern Columbia. It was just the second time in 25 years that someone beat Southern in districts and it has not happened since, driving home how impressive that achievement was. A week later the Warriors, who featured a 2,000-yard rusher and 2,000-yard passer won a 21-19 championship thriller against Loyalsock and again made Keefer like like a prophet.

“We knew we had to start over because we were going down the wrong path when we started 3-4,” McKeag said. “That was when Keefer instituted the 0-0 record. We started from scratch and we made our way back up.”

That has been a Montoursville specialty under Keefer. The Warriors might get knocked down sometimes, but Keefer builds them back up and they come back stronger than before. It happened in 2015 when the Warriors surged late again, reached another district final and nearly stunned the state in a 56-50 loss against eventual state champion Southern. A year later, the Warriors lost their regular-season finale but pounded both district playoff opponents and won another championship.

Even in a 2-8 campaign a year later, Montoursville made great strides. That team featured just three returning starters and was loaded with underclassmen thrown into the fire against an imposing schedule. Montoursville, however, won two straight games following an 0-7 start and laid the foundation for consecutive dominant championship seasons.

The Warriors made a nine-win improvement in 2018, the best single-season improvement by any area team last decade, and Keefer again earned Sun-Gazette Coach of the Year honors. Montoursville won a share of the HAC-II crown, its first league title since 2000, and blanked top-seeded Danville, 32-0 on its home field for the district title.

Again, Keefer had turned a negative into a positive. Six weeks earlier on that field, Danville had routed Montoursville, 52-26. It was a setback but Keefer helped Montoursville make a huge comeback and it won its next five games, capping it with a near perfect district championship performance.

“Part of the way he helped us against Danville was certainly his motivation and making us believe we can do it and that it’s all heart and that’s something you’ll hear him express a lot,” Shearer said. “The way he coaches makes everyone come together and play for him and everyone else around.”

Montoursville returned the majority of those starters in 2019 and put together one of the best seasons in program history. The Warriors won nearly all their games via the mercy rule, including three straight in districts, finishing 12-2 and romping to back-to-back HAC-II and District 4 championships.

Only the greatest Southern Columbia team in its program’s storied history and Class AAA state champion Wyoming Area defeated Montoursville. The Warriors led Wyoming Area 21-13 at halftime before losing, 43-27. It was a performance which many who watched the game felt like could be reversed if they played again. These were two evenly-matched teams and if it had been a best-of-seven series it likely would have gone seven games. Who would have won that hypothetical series is a mystery and that is a testament to how good this Montoursville team was. The Warriors were expected to be outstanding in 2019 and Keefer made sure sure the team stayed focused and hungry all season, again exuding all he could from his players.

That is what he does best and this tradition remains in good hands.

“What Coach Keefer does for this team is incredible and beyond words,” Miller said. “He is a role model for all of us. We look up to him all the time.”

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