In 2003, the Youngsville football team was struggling through another difficult 2-7 season.
Just down the road, something special was beginning to take shape. Something that would ultimately unite a community and erase over four decades of losing and frustration.
Just down the road, a group of young football players - a group that would become seniors on the 2011 Youngsville football team that recently completed a perfect regular season at 10-0 -were putting on the pads for the first time.
Times Observer photo by Allen Seybert
Where it all began
Youngsville’s Rocco Gatta breaks away from Seneca defenders during the Eagles’ season opening 19-7 victory over the Bobcats earlier this season at Seneca High School. The 10-0 Eagles will look to win a District 10 playoff game for the first time in school history Friday when they play the West Middlesex Big Reds at 7 p.m. at Corry Area High School.
Times Observer photo by Allen Seybert
Youngsville's Jordan Gurdak, right, closes in on the end zone as teammate Dalton Maze provides a block during a 48-22 victory over Saegertown a week ago. The 10-0 Eagles will look to win a District 10 playoff game for the first time in school history Friday when they play the West Middlesex Big Reds at 7 p.m. at Corry Area High School.
Warren General Hospital employees Debbie Gray, Jodi Bevevino and Brenda Hansen, a Youngnsville graduate, made a display at the hospital, near the old E.R. entrance by the river, congratulating the Eagles on a 10-0 regular season and wishing them well at Friday’s District 10 Class A football playoffs against West Middlesex at Corry Area High School.
As fourth graders on that field, a perfect regular season and a District 10 playoff game - like Friday night's 7 p.m. Class A quarterfinal with West Middlesex at Corry Area High School - seemed like a pipe dream. Something to strive for, but something not really attainable.
Only to these guys it was.
After eight years of hard work and determination, this group of seniors - Dalton Maze, Cory Craig, Sam Lucas, Sage Sivak, Kyle Rafalski, Stephen Beattie, Jerome Sliter, Ryan Rickerson and Sawyer Dininny - has helped put Youngsville football back on the map.
It didn't happen overnight.
As seventh-graders, this group won only one game, looking like anything but a team that would steamroll through Region 2 just five years later.
"We took some lumps early on," said Eagles lineman Sawyer Dininny. "As a class, we gelled together quite well, but we had a lot of (varsity players) who didn't support us much and that weren't good for the program. A lot of them didn't care whether we won or lost and we were tired of losing."
According to Lucas, the team's leading rusher with 741 yards and 13 touchdowns, the eighth-grade year was a turning point for the group.
"We went 8-2 in eighth-grade," said Lucas. "We got a small taste of success and really started to buy into the fact that with enough hard work, there was no reason we couldn't carry this thing forward into varsity ball."
Most of the class of 2012 remained on the sidelines through a difficult 2-8 season as freshmen. One year later, as sophomores, many of this year's seniors began being integrated into the lineup and success followed. In 2009, Youngsville won five of its last six games to finish 5-5 and big things were expected in 2010.
Instead, the injury bug crept up and decimated the Eagles' roster during a 2-8 season. Perhaps the biggest injury was a season-ending collarbone fracture suffered by Craig in the preseason.
Luckily for the seniors, they had one chance left. One last year in which they had to make the most of it.
Have they ever?
"We committed to working hard in the offseason and doing what we needed to do to make our senior year special," said lineman Ryan Rickerson. "We talked about how we needed to come together and play as a group. Work as one and play as one."
First year Eagles head coach Luke Alex has always been impressed with the crop of seniors and thinks their closeness off the field has translated into success between the sidelines.
"The cohesiveness of that class has always impressed me," said Alex. "They are a team in every sense of the word. They are all friends off the field and treat each other like family. No matter what happens on the field, they have each others back. Sure, they have squabbles like any family does. But when push comes to shove, they are always there for one another."
When the 2011 season kicked off, that closeness started to translate into victories on the playing field. Although those wins didn't come so easy at first.
Youngsville started the season with back-to-back victories over Seneca and Union City, but the wins were anything but dominating. During the first two weeks of the season, the Eagles offense sputtered, scoring just 24 points. The defense more than made up for it, however, allowing just one score to Seneca in a 19-7 win and shutting out Union City, 5-0.
After two sub-par outings, Eagles offensive coordinator Chad Edwards went to work prior to week three. The offense quickly came to life, reaching 40 points in two straight wins - 40-6 over Maplewood and 42-14 over Iroquois.
While Youngsville was cruising at 4-0, it wasn't until the fifth game of the year that Youngsville started earning the respect it thought it deserved. In that fifth game, the Eagles knocked off Region 2 power Mercyhurst Prep, 25-13, to take control of the top spot in Region 2 - for good.
The victory over the Lakers also put a target on the team's back and each of Youngsville's five remaining opponents entered their game looking to clip the Eagles' wings.
No dice. In games against Eisenhower, Cambridge Springs, Conneaut (Ohio), Cochranton and second-place Saegertown, the Eagles compiled a 5-0 record, winning by an average score of 44-10.
"We can throw anything at them and they have the ability to change on the fly," said Alex. "Even if we get into a situation where we need to change game plans midway through the second quarter, I always have full confidence these kids can get the job done. They adapt better than any team I've ever coached."
Another strength of the Youngsville club in 2011 is balance. In years past, the team's passing game was virtually non-existent and the running game consisted of one feature back running the ball anywhere from 20 to 25 times per game.
That's certainly not the case anymore. The passing game has flourished with Craig, and the senior has 1,062 yards passing this season with 15 touchdowns and just four picks. Dalton Maze is averaging over 26 yards per catch and has a team-high seven touchdowns while Rocco Gatta and Lucas each have four touchdown receptions.
Running the ball, Lucas' 741 yards and 13 touchdowns lead the team. All that damage has been done in just 96 carries. He doesn't carry the load alone, however, as Jordan Gurdak (83 carries, 707 yards, 7 TD), Craig (118 carries, 622 yards, 8 TD), Sivak (62 carries, 303 yards, 3 TD) and Gatta (26 carries, 163 yards, 2 TD) are all more than capable.
Those eyepopping statistics have translated into victories at a record pace. The team completed the first perfect regular season at Youngsville since 1966 and has set a new high mark for wins in a season with 10. On Friday - 11/11/11 - the Eagles will go for win number 11.
That 11th win would be special for another reason. A victory over West Middlesex would give Youngsville its first playoff win in school history.
Standing in the way are the West Middlesex Big Reds. The fourth seed out of Region 1, the Reds finished the regular season with a mark of 5-4. This won't be the first time these teams have crossed paths in 2011. In August, the teams meant in a very competitive scrimmage.
"It was back and forth - very good football," said Alex. "They had some guys out and we had some guys out. It's going to be an entertaining football game."
The Eagles and Reds had no common opponents this season and West Middlesex enters having won two of their last three. That loss came last week as Region 1's second seed, the Mercer Mustangs, handed the Reds a 42-6 drubbing.
The Reds ran a spread offense earlier this season, but have transitioned to power running in recent weeks. Clay Allen leads the running attack with 657 yards and seven scores and Colin Patten has added 433 yards and five touchdowns.
Quarterback Jeremy Jancso has 799 yards and nine touchdowns this year and three receivers - Sage Pope, Patten and James Willis - have at least 12 receptions.
"They are a very fast team - incredible speed," said Alex. "I think ball control is going to be very big in this game. We need to limit our turnovers and try to stop them from making big plays down the field."
Winning the school's first playoff game would be another special accomplishment in a season full of them. However, to Alex, a win would provide something even sweeter for the Youngsville players and coaches.
"It would be great for the community and for these guys to look back and say they got the first playoff win," said Alex. "But right now (a win) would be sweetest because it would allow us to play another week. That's what we're looking to do - extend the season."
Lucas couldn't agree more.
"There's something special about high school football," he said. "It's playing offense. It's playing defense. It's being out there with the boys - Friday Night Lights baby. There's nothing like it in the world. We just don't want this ride to end."