RIDGWAY — The 2018 Coudersport football team more than made up for a slow start with a fantastic finish, avenging a trio of regular-season losses to claim the District 9 Class A crown before running into eventual state champion Farrell in the PIAA playoffs to end the season at 8-5.
Needing to fill some key roles, but with plenty of starting experience returning, the Falcons were tabbed as this year’s preseason D-9 Small School North Division favorite during the annual district-wide Media Day event held July 31 in Ridgway.
What sparked last year’s turnaround, following a 5-4 regular-season mark and a heartbreaking 21-20 loss to Smethport for the North Division title?
Rising senior Travis Gleason, a starting defensive end on that team, explained, “The first half of the year, we played as 11 individuals. We finally came together and started playing as a team, believing in each other, and we just took off.”
Cale Ayers, who started on both sides of the ball as a sophomore, added, “I felt like in some of those games that we lost, we didn’t play as well as we could have. Once the playoffs came, something just clicked and we were able to play to our potential and play like we should have the rest of the year.”
For head coach Tom Storey, the postseason success may not have happened without the adversity that preceded it.
“The big thing is that those losses that made it the ‘Revenge Tour’ is kind of what took them to what they did. We learned from them,” he said. “Like they were saying, they kind of learned as they went on. They worked as a team and executed like they knew they could, like we knew they could. Those losses are what fueled them.”
Ten seniors graduated from that roster, including Big 30 All-Stars Stephen Kelly and Eli Ayers and fellow Charities Classic participants Wyatte Osborne, Preston Cobb and Mason Klesa.
“Filling the shoes of an 1,800-yard rusher is going to be hard, then also putting him behind a line with three seniors that have left. That’s our challenge this year,” Storey said of trying to replace Kelly’s 30-touchdown performance.
With that said, the cupboard certainly isn’t bare. Storey listed nine returning players on offense and 10 on defense with starting experience, including seniors Dan Frame, Gleason, Dillon Keglovits, John Minor, Jacob Pitcher, Kolby VanWhy, and Tom Wilson along with Ayers and fellow juniors Brandon Goss, Hayden Keck and Brandt Kightlinger.
Keck rushed for 13 touchdowns last year and added eight through the air, including three to Minor and a pair to Kightlinger.
“We know what we can do. We have a lot of the same guys back; we lost a few on the line, but they can be replaced,” Gleason said. “We’re right back where we started. We’ve just got to get to work.”
Said Storey, “One of the things I’ve always told them, this is high school football. This isn’t the pros. Some of their technique might be off that day or stuff like that, but if they play with heart and desire, a lot of things can happen. They put their technique to work last year, but I think that heart and desire came in there at the end of the season, and that’s what took them to what they did. They’ve learned that. They know what they can do and what they need to do, and I think that’s definitely going to help this year.”
Last year’s championship run may have been unexpected — outside Potter County, anyway — but the preseason coaches’ vote shows that the Falcons won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time.
But for Storey, now in his third year at the Falcons’ helm, it’s about what his team does, not the opponents.
“What we accomplished last year is a great deal. These guys know what it takes now,” he said. “We will work game to game, and these guys will do fine. If they work their butts off like they know how to and execute like they know how to, I don’t see any reason why we can’t be right back up there where we were last year. That puts a lot on them, but that’s how much I believe in them.”
“Definitely repeating as D-9 champs would be up there,” Ayers said. “But that just comes down to playing our best every play, giving 100 percent effort every play.”
Aug. 23: Union-AC Valley, 7 p.m.
Aug. 30: Elk County Catholic, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7: at Sheffield, 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 20: Port Allegany, 7 p.m. (HOMECOMING)
Sept. 27: at Curwensville, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4: at Otto-Eldred, 7 p.m.
Oct. 12: Redbank Valley, 7 p.m. (FALL SENIOR NIGHT)
Oct. 18: at Smethport, 7 p.m.
Oct. 25: at Cameron County, 7 p.m.