Twenty-two Port Allegany High School seniors, 10 players and 12 cheerleaders, were the guests of honor at the annual varsity football banquet at the Veterans Memorial on Nov. 1.

Master of ceremonies George Riley welcomed the attendees, then lauded the players and cheerleading squad.

“We didn’t win a lot of games, but everything that was in the paper was positive about this team and this coaching staff. Like the way they helped out in the community after one of the 100-year storms that we’ve had four of in the last six months,” Riley said, bringing a round of chuckles from the assembled group of players, cheerleaders, seniors’ parents, and others affiliated with the program.

Also mentioning the ‘Reading Under the Lights’ event, senior players’ weekly visits to read to kindergarteners and first-graders at the elementary school, and handing out Halloween candy at the school ‘Trunk or Treat’ night as examples of their non-football activities, he added, “They just do stuff in the community, which I think is awesome.”

In his prepared remarks, Riley spoke of some of the attributes the game of football can teach, including teamwork, discipline, work ethic, perseverance, and learning from both success and failure.

“You demonstrated all these characteristics that I’ve mentioned. You worked as a team. You supported each other, you supported the school, you supported the community. You demonstrated discipline on and off the field. You persevered. You didn’t quit, you hung in there, and that says a lot about you,” he said. “I want to wish you guys and you ladies all the success in the world. You’re fantastic people. I thank you for what you’ve given us this year, and I hope that you reach the goals that you want to get to.”

Next, varsity cheerleading coaches Terrie Austin and Caitlyn Davies recognized the members of their squad, introducing each senior individually by telling them something the coaches loved about their contribution to the group.

Cheerleading seniors include Tara Briggs, Brooke Buchsenschutz, Haley Darush, Liberty Dates, Jose DeJesus, Taylor Emerson, Emma Fox, Imagin Keyser, Jocelyn Lilly, Kalyn Naylor, Ashley Skinner, and Anna Stewart.

Varsity football head coach Justin Bienkowski began his remarks by asking everyone except the seniors to rise, resulting in a standing ovation for the Class of 2020.

“It’s a testament to the amount of character, quality, hard work, dedication, all the adjectives that you can use to describe human beings at the age of 14, 15, 16, 17,” he said. Pointing to the far end of the seniors’ table, he continued, “From Jose at that end of the table all the way up here to Josh, these cats right here are fantastic people.

“This isn’t just about football, this is about family. This team is my second family. I don’t have any sons, I have three daughters and my beautiful wife, and you guys give me that opportunity to experience that. That’s something that I can’t ever take for granted. I’m going to apologize ahead of time for being emotional, but I love coaching you guys. Love it. I don’t love you as just players, I genuinely love you guys as human beings.

“This season, we had two wins and six losses. On paper, someone’s saying, ‘Throw that paper in the garbage, that’s trash.’ But this year was so full of life lessons for us, going to work every day, punching the clock.”

Speaking of the team’s efforts in helping to pick up after the August storm, Bienkowski recalled that when assistant coach Cliff Fillhart, a borough employee, asked if the team could lend a hand, he sent out a group text and “45 minutes later, the team was on the Square.”

Starting downtown, the players and coaches split into two groups, working their way up Mill Street and Arnold Avenue.

“They cleaned up the town that they grow up in, and that’s important. That’s something that football can’t teach you, but that’s something football can support for you,” he said. “When you wear those six letters across your chest, you’re part of something special for a long time. It has nothing to do with football, but it has everything to do with people, character, boys becoming men, something more special than just strapping up the pads for two hours every day.”

After honoring the members of the team, including seniors Izak Bidwell, Dominick Button, A.J. Edgell, Hunter Kisko, Shawn McNeil, D.J. Michelitsch, Eli Petruzzi, Josh Rees, Howie Stuckey, and Montgomery Tanner, Bienkowski concluded, “They were willing to attempt, willing to try to execute whatever we threw at them, willing to try and take the life lessons that we talked about earlier and put them onto a football field, a wrestling mat, a baseball field, whatever sports they’re playing.

“They have shown that they will support what comes in front of them. Whatever their wife tells them, whatever their kids tell them, those guys are going to handle it with everything they can. They’re going to become better husbands, better fathers, and better employees for being a part of this program, and we are better human beings for having had the opportunity to coach these 10 seniors. Fellas, I love you as people, I love you as players, and I will always appreciate what you’ve done for this program. Much love, and thank you very much.”