In sports, a losing culture can spread like a sickness.
Comparable to a cough that persists through a bag of lozenges, or a cold that hangs tough despite bottle after bottle of cold relief.
In the case of the Youngsville football team, that sickness - that losing culture - has hung around for the better part of the past 40 years.
Photos by Times Observer
Youngsville has been getting plenty of support from cheerleaders, fans and the Eagles Touchdown Club in its run to a 9-0 start to the 2011 high school football season. Above, cheerleaders await the players with a banner before the Eisenhower game at Eisenhower High School.
Quarterback Cory Craig gets a sign.
Students paint “Go Eagles” in support of the team.
Times Observer photos
Youngsville players, including junior kicker T.J. Hardy (85) and freshman James Funkhouser (10) shake hands with fans following the Eagles’ 25-13 win over Mercyhurst Prep on Sept. 30 at Mike Shine Field in Youngsville.
Times Observer photos
Biggest Little Town
Fans storm the field, and celebrate with the team, after Youngsville’s 25-13 high school football victory over Mercyhurst Prep on Sept. 30. The Eagles are 9-0 and will play 6-3 Saegertown at 7 p.m. Friday at Mike Shine Field for the Region 2 championship. Youngsville has already clinched a spot in the District 10 Class A playoffs beginning next week. The Eagles have nine wins in a season for the first time in school history, and are in the playoffs for the first time since 1994.
During that time span, when people coupled the words success and Youngsville, they conjured up images of Mike Shine in Montreal, state wrestling champions David Fehlman and Jim Hoffner or the 1991-92 Eagles boys basketball team that went 29-2 and advanced to the state quarterfinals.
Not football. Not even close.
Saegertown enters Friday's Region 2 championship game at Youngsville with a 6-3 overall record.
Youngsville is 9-0 overall and 7-0 in region. Saegertown and Mercyhurst Prep are both 6-1 in the region. Youngsville could win the region title outright at 8-0 in region with a win. Saegertown and Youngsville could each finish 7-1 in region and Mercyhurst Prep 6-2. Or all three teams could finish at 7-1 with a three-way tie for the region title. All these possibilities exist.
But Saegertown is 6-3 overall, having lost its first two games of the season, 38-20, to Imani Christian Academy of Pittsburgh, and, 30-14, to Union. They later lost, 27-26, to Mercyhurst Prep in overtime.
All three have qualified for the District 10 Class A playoffs beginning next week.
The 2011 Youngsville football team is 9-0 and on the cusp of its first perfect regular season since 1966. A victory over Saegertown on Friday night would complete a 10-0 trip through the regular season. It would give Youngsville the Region 2 championship outright heading into next weekend's District 10 Class A quarterfinals.
This magical season has been about more than outscoring the opposition. Instead, it's bonded a community from the players and coaches to the students and fans. It's bonded a community that has long been starved for success between the sidelines.
Long story short - the 2011 Youngsville football season has been a long time coming.
It's not like the Eagles football program has never seen success. From 1965 to 1970, the team won 38 out of 48 outings, including a pair of ties. That included undefeated seasons in 1965 and 1966 and a 7-1 showing in 1970.
During those days, standouts like Denny Mason, Jim Kellogg, Paul Gurdak, Tom Holcomb, Milt Johnson, Bruce Fitzgerald and Glenn Collins were making the plays and Warren County Sports Hall of Fame coach Toby Shea was calling the shots.
However, when the 1970's were ushered in, disco was in and Youngsville football was on the way out. Down and out, for that matter. Between 1971 and 2010, you won't find many teams in District 10 - even the state of Pennsylvania - that have lost more consistently than Youngsville?
Between 1971 and 2010, the Eagles have won just 27 percent of their games - a meager record of 96 wins, 256 losses and eight ties. In 40 years, Youngsville has enjoyed just five winning seasons and two trips to the District 10 playoffs. On the flip side, the team has struggled through a total of 10 seasons that finished either winless or with just one victory.
In 2011, it's been a different story. A welcome change in tone for a school and town that have been the doormats of District 10 for far too long. This group of 31 Eagles - and its outstanding core of nine seniors - declared early this season that enough was enough and that losing would no longer be accepted.
It was time for these Eagles to fly.
"This is just the right group of kids at the right time," said first-year head coach Luke Alex. "The senior leadership provided by these guys is incredible. We as coaches are able to throw stuff at them they have never seen and they are able to grasp it like they've been doing it forever.
"That ability to learn on the fly and their overall commitment to everything it takes to be successful in the game of football is what's allowed them to get where they're at. Their commitment to their teammates and our game plan as well as the mental focus they show when they take to the field is special to watch."
That mental focus and commitment has translated into success on the field. Winning has pumped life into the small village of less than 1,800 people. Nights spent eating late Friday dinners, lamenting the latest loss, have been replaced by police and fire escorts back into town and victory celebrations that run into Saturday morning.
According to Eagles Touchdown Club president Shashawn Maze, the Eagles have had police and fire truck escorts returning into town after recent victories over Eisenhower and Cambridge Springs. Those escorts have been trailed by the team bus, fan buses and the honking horns of several enthusiastic parents, students and fans.
According to Maze, if this season has done anything, it's brought a small town together. Eagles fever has swept through the town and replaced the sickness of losing.
"It's absolutely amazing," she said. "I go to an away game with a fully-charged cell phone and by the time I leave it's dead because of people texting me for updates. It's really amazing to see how hard these kids have worked and to know that it's finally paying off."
Maze added that a big crowd is expected for Friday's game with Saegertown and that the crowds have been important to the team all season.
"They feed off that energy," she said. "You can see it in how they play. Last week against Cochranton, we had a bigger crowd than the home team. My son Dalton even stopped me and said 'wow, Mom, can you believe how many people we had there.'"
The current coaching staff deserves a lot of the credit for the turnaround that the Eagles have put together this season. That also includes Tony Tridico, who guided the Eagles during the previous five seasons and stepped down after the 2010 campaign. The current staff members were all brought to Youngsville by Tridico when he took over in 2006.
Tridico took over a program in 2006 that hadn't won more than four games in 12 years. He knew from the onset that sacking that losing culture would be the toughest challenge in front of him.
"I knew about the losing culture and some of the other challenges we were facing going in," said Tridico. "I knew if we were going to turn things around I'd need one heck of a staff. So I brought in some of my former players and tried to groom them to be the best coaches you've ever seen.
"Our first season in Youngsville, our ninth graders had failed to even score a point in junior high. That summer I remember telling my staff - this is going to take six years. One of two things will happen: We will turn it around or we're going to find out we can't do it and no one can."
Tridico and his staff began by prepping the 2006 seventh-grade class - this year's group of seniors.
"I didn't care if we didn't win a varsity game for three years. I knew we had to start at the bottom," said Tridico. "I think they won just one game in seventh-grade, but wins weren't the issue. I was looking to see if they would lift, if they would work. They were committed right then and I knew we had a shot to turn things around."
While he hasn't been on the sidelines during this year's amazing run, Tridico has coached nearly all of the members on the team and is certainly enjoying the successful season they have put together.
"I'm like a proud father in the press box," he said. "I'm watching my former players put together an amazing season as a staff and I'm watching that special seventh-grade class grow into amazing football players. I don't even know that words can describe how fulfilling it's been."
Tridico is not alone. Former players and coaches from all over are area - and many outside of the area - have been paying close attention to this incredible run.
1996 YHS graduate Christian Metzler played for the Eagles during the back-to-back winless seasons of 1995 and 1996. Now living in Denver, Colorado, Metzler has been pulling for his alma mater and his interest has grown with each passing week.
"I started following the team after they knocked off Mercyhurst Prep," said Metzler. "I could not believe they were even playing them to begin with, and after learning they won, it got me excited. I am excited for the team and really for the town of Youngsville. It's a feel-good story that I'm sure is bringing that small town together. They had to endure bad football for a long time."
Metzler added that, while its been 15 years since he put on the pads for the Eagles, he never expected a team to break through like this year's team has.
"I would've never thought in 1996 that Youngsville could ever compete with a school like Mercyhurst Prep," he said. "(When I played), we stunk and people just accepted losing. I felt like a lot of the guys didn't take it too seriously - more concerned with the parties, I guess.
"I had a blast playing, but losing was hard to take. It beats you down after a while and you believe you never will win. Eleven years later and these guys are making up for it. It makes me proud even out here in Denver. I think every small town is a football town. I'm glad to see that we can say Youngsville is now one of the best."
Many of today's current players aren't necessarily interested in history lessons. After all, most of these kids' parents weren't born yet when Mason, Kellogg, Gurdak, Tom Radecki, Collins and others were beating up on the competition. As perhaps they should be, they are simply living in the moment and enjoying the ride.
"We've been working hard a lot of years to turn this thing around and it's finally paying off," said Youngsville's leading rusher Sam Lucas. "We've been lifting hard and putting in the time it takes to be successful. I think what most of us have learned is that you can accomplish anything with hard work.
"Most guys at a school like Youngsville aren't going to play in the NFL or even at college. So playing football is about preparing yourself for life and I think one lesson we've all learned is that hard work pays off. It's been a very special year. It's awesome to be a part of it."
Like Lucas, quarterback Cory Craig says it's hard work that has led to the team's accomplishments. The fact that football is bringing the school and the community together isn't lost on the senior signal caller.
"The fans do a lot for us," said Craig. "To go to away games and see fan buses rolling up to watch us play is awesome. The community has really come to life and gotten behind us and it's been cool to be involved with something like that."
While each week the Eagles accomplish something that requires the past to be called to attention, Alex has spent all season trying to keep his guys in the "now." While Alex respects what past Youngsville teams have accomplished and while he's proud of this year's 9-0 record, he and his team are not ready to start celebrating yet.
"I've tried to stress over and over that the past is the past," he said. "What we've done so far isn't good enough because we still have goals we haven't accomplished. We're as proud as we can be with what we've done. But these guys know we have bigger goals than starting the season 9-0. We need to keep our focus and stay in the now if we want to take this thing to the next level."