It doesn't matter so much that Sheffield is rallying around a duck.
It matters more that Sheffield is rallying.
Third-year head football coach Bryan Gould admitted that a duck is a strange choice for the Wolverines. If it wasn't a duck, it would have been something else - something fun, something spirited, something positive.
Photo by Kristi Goldthwaite
There was a real, live duck hanging out by the Sheffield Wolverines during a rain-soaked 40-0 win at Johnsonburg in the fourth game of the season. They just couldn’t shoo it away. Since then, Sheffield has adopted a duck (decoy) as its temporary mascot — to mark a turn-around that saw the team win four of six games and enter the D9 Class AA playoffs as the fourth seed.
"We've been together for three years, and I'm a positive person," said Gould. "I've seen negativity take you in the wrong direction too many times. The coaches, the parents, the community are preaching positive stuff. I'm a firm believer in the power of positive thinking, I truly am. It's really catching on this year. I don't focus on the negative and neither do the other coaches; it's carrying on to the players, the parents, to the community, which is a big deal because positive works - something as simple as the duck."
After three losses to open the season - 44-6 to Brockway, 37-0 to Curwensville, and 16-0 to Ridgway - Sheffield won, 40-0, at Johnsonburg in a constant rain.
"There was actually a real duck that made its way on to the football field," said Gould. "It was hanging out behind (our) huddle. One of our players asked, 'Why would someone bring their pet duck to the game?' It was hilarious."
The Wolverines became the Wolverducks, and, from then on, a duck decoy became a symbol of when Sheffield's season turned around, and the team came together.
In all honesty, that started happening before the season even started.
"I'll tell you what really helped us, to be honest, was the fight to keep the team through the Warren County (School District) budget crisis," said Sheffield assistant coach Dave Fitch.
Senior running back Nick Bonavita said players collaborated on speeches to present to the school board against the consolidation of sports programs - fighting to keep Sheffield's football team. Fighting. Together.
"This is the first year I can see we are playing with some swagger," said Gould. "We have confidence going into games, which is something being built on since they were sophomores.
"I coached in junior high when these seniors were eighth-graders," he said. "Number one, this is a very special team for me because this was my first team all the way back to eighth grade. Obviously, I'm very attached to these seniors because I've been with them for five years. We've seen these guys grow."
Coaches and players were more excited about this season than any in memory.
"We've always thought this group of seniors was a special breed," said Fitch. "When you coach in small-town America, you have your classes that come and go. This group, we always wanted the best from. We're a tight group."
Fitch said two years ago, when this group of seniors were sophomores, "Jimmy Hahn and Craig Fitch, they were very positive. They set the tone for how this co-op (with Abraxas) should be handled, and this year is a mirror image. The kids have bonded since week one. The kids have just accepted each other.
"We started out very rough, but we knew we were going through a bad one-or-two-week time frame," said Fitch. "Since have probably been the best six games I've ever been associated with Sheffield football, and I've been there 10 years - no arguing, no fighting, no talking back to coaches."
After an 0-3 start, Sheffield won four of its next six games, including three shutouts of Johnsonburg, Otto-Eldred and Smethport. The Wolverines only two losses in that span were 7-6 in overtime to previously unbeaten Coudersport and 19-6 to Allegheny Mountain League North champion Port Allegany.
"We've all gotten along so well through everything," said Bonavita. "We've just been going out and playing football. We're going out and having fun."
Gould said that it goes way beyond a fun season; the Wolverines won on Homecoming, on Senior Day, and they won two games in a row. He said all these are things that haven't happened in years at Sheffield High School.
And the Wolverines have never made the playoffs. They have this year, and no one cares it is fourth out of five total Class AA teams in District 9.
The team, Fitch said, is printing t-shirts with the motto, "Tradition Starts Today."
The Wolverines that learned how to become a team two years ago layed the groundwork for the team that learned how to win this year. Fitch said this team, and group of seniors, is laying the groundwork for the future at Sheffield High School.
For detractors that don't think a 4-6 team belongs in the playoffs, "Be proud of who you are and what you have accomplished, and let's shut the mouths of all the naysayers on Saturday," a fan wrote on the "Wolverine football" Facebook page. "Wolverine proud and T'd off and more determined than ever."
That page is jam-packed with support and a microcosm of the season.
"We, the Wolverines, may of only been 4-6, but our pride and determination this season is more like a 10-0 record," one fan wrote.
Nick Bonavita has rushed for 662 yards and seven touchdowns. Ike Nearing, Shequan Wright and Kalil Slaughter have added two touchdown runs each, and George Fitch has a touchdown rushing for Sheffield. Nearing and Wright have combined for five touchdown passes in the mostly rushing offense, also led in receptions by Bonavita. Fitch and Bonavita lead an aggressive and willful defense in tackles with 97 and 79, respectively. Fitch has nine sacks, and Nearing, Wright and Kwante Johnson have three interceptions each. Johnson is a threat to score anytime he gets the ball at receiver, on an interception, or kick or punt return.
Bonavita is one of five AML all-stars with Jeb Greto (center), George Fitch (defensive end), Nate Charlton (defensive tackle), and Nearing (linebacker).
Gould knows it won't be easy; Sheffield comes in as the lowest seed against 9-0 Keystone Shortway Conference champion, Moniteau, at 5 p.m. Saturday at Clarion University in the District 9 Class AA Semifinals.
Moniteau is a beast full of talented seniors on a roster of over 40 players. The Warriors have outscored its nine opponents by a total of 350- 136.
Moniteau is led by 6-foot-1 dual-threat quarterback, Kyle Armagost, who has thrown for 1,420 yards and 16 scores and run for 847 yards and 14 scores. He averages almost 21 yards a completed pass, and over six yards a rush.
Sophomore Dustin Geagen has rushed for 1,174 yards and averages 8.7 yards per carry.
Senior receiver Ethan Pry has 28 receptions for 676 yards - 24 yards per catch - and nine touchdowns. Seniors Joey Deal and Brayden McCorry have combined for the other eight touchdown catches. All are 6-foot-2.
The Warriors also boast a strong and experienced offensive line, including 6-foot-4, 305-pound Chester Gladd.
They beat Union, 34-14 - the same team that just beat Sheffield, 60-21.
"You can't be 9-0 and not be a solid team," said Gould. "They've definitely proven themselves in the KSAC... We need to play a solid football game in order to beat them. They are the '1' seed, we're the '4' seed. The Internet's going to tell you this is David vs. Goliath. But in this battle, we're bringing much more than a slingshot."