The visage of veteran Bellwood-Antis High School football coach John Hayes reflected the image of his 2009 Blue Devils.
Hayes was caught in action near the sideline early in the Devils' District 6 Class A championship game against Bishop McCort, and it showed. He exchanged hugs with family that had come from Richmond, North Carolina and Ligonier behind the visiting bleachers at Mansion Park following the contest Saturday night sporting a bandaged nose and bloodied face. His new B-A sweatshirt will require a trip to the laundry.
How appropriate it seemed for the coach of such a strong, hard-hitting, hard-working team.
However, even tough guys can cry. B-A lineman Grant Martin, one of the toughest of the Blue Devils' tough guys, fought back the tears while considering the accomplishments of a season concluded with a heart-breaking 34-20 defeat.
"The loss is a big disappointment,'' Martin said, "but the love for each other, my teammates, the friendship, it's great. I'm surprised how much we've been through together. I'm never going to forget.''
Hayes took the loss just as hard, it seemed. He looked at the ground, lamenting the days before district playoffs. Then, the Blue Devils would have ended the year 9-0 or 10-0, instead of 11-1.
Hayes felt for his players.
"They really deserved all that they achieved. Right now, they're extremely disappointed, as we all are. They're bawling their eyes out, because they didn't want it to end,'' Hayes said.
"It's a shame. These kids played well. They were beaten by a very good team. It will be a very bitter pill for awhile.''
The one game's bitterness will temporarily mask what was a very sweet year for the Blue Devils. In addition to winning the Inter-County Conference North Division and getting the better of a heavily-favored McCort team for most of three quarters before the game turned around, Bellwood posted its first perfect regular season since 2001 and - probably most important of all - knocked off archrival Tyrone for the first time since 2002.
"That win really boosted our confidence. Going into the rest of the games, we pretty much figured we could win out if we could beat Tyrone. They were the toughest team on our schedule,'' Martin said. "Then, we just wanted to see where we could go in the playoffs.''
In a sense, though, the Blue Devils approached each week like the playoffs, according to senior wideout/linebacker Trey Campbell.
"Every win was a big win for us, we felt,'' Campbell said. "We wanted to go undefeated, and every game we got every team's best look.''
Dealing with that required a substantial amount of mental toughness. The Devils nearly slipped up against Everett the week after beating Tyrone, then hit a stride. At one point, Bellwood shut out three consecutive opponents, including Moshannon Valley in a midseason showdown of undefeated teams.
The final month of the season was a potential mine field for a rolling Devil team. Glendale, Juniata Valley and Mount Union all kept B-A on its toes heading into the postseason. Those challenges seemed to sharpen up the Devils for wins against streaking Blacklick Valley and then-unbeaten Portage.
That mental strength went hand in hand with a physical toughness that so often characterizes Bellwood teams, but perhaps this one as much as any in a long time.
These Devils didn't have the breakaway threat that the Josh Kleinfelter-led squads possessed earlier this decade. It relied more on grinding things out with hard-running Zack McCaulley and Tyler Beech behind linemen Martin, Zack Doyle, Bobby DeArmitt, Nate Shuster and Mark McCracken and delivering punishing tackles on defense.
Even the skill players and defensive backs, like 165-pound cornerback Nick DeGol, were of that mindset.
"We all want to have the biggest hit, and we all want to talk about it the next day,'' DeGol said. "Us little guys can hit, too. We don't need to be 200 pounds.''
DeGol laughed a bit while delivering the explanation. Hayes said one of the things he'll remember most about this team was the diverse senses of humor of the players.
"It's a fun group,'' Martin said. "These guys all know how to have fun and work hard at the same time. When we need to be serious, we're serious, and we can loosen up, too.''
That was born of being a tight-knit group. Most of the current Blue Devils have been friends since grade school.
With nine starters returning - including six on defense - Bellwood seems poised to make another deep playoff run next season, perhaps extending its run of district finals appearances to six in seven years.
This team, though, left a mark ... both figuratively and literally.
"We want to hit. That's the main thing for Bellwood,'' Campbell said. "We want to hit and be physical and make them know us. Make them know who we are. Make them not forget us.''
For opponents and B-A fans alike, that mission seems to have been accomplished.
"Yeah,'' Campbell said, in a sigh of satisfaction.
Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org