WINDBER - Central. Bellwood-Antis. Tyrone. Portage. Hollidaysburg. Huntingdon.
When area fans back in August were talking about which area high school football team had the best chance to make a lengthy playoff run, those were the usual suspects. Bedford was far down the list ... if it made the list at all.
The Bisons, though, were the surprising last squad left standing from the Mirror coverage area.
Even to some of their own.
"I never thought that I'd be coaching into the second week of deer season,'' Bedford coach Dan Smith said.
The Bisons' season concluded at a frigid Windber Stadium Friday night with a 49-12 loss to WPIAL champion Greensburg Central Catholic. There weren't the typical amount of tears being shed, though, because Bedford raised the bar for what defined a Cinderella team to a new level this year.
"I wouldn't change a thing,'' Tanner Ripple, one of the Bisons' captains, said with a gleam in his eye.
It was indeed, the feel-good story of the season. With Smith having decided before the season that his second year at the helm would be his last, Bedford won its first game, and then dropped its next five.
Somehow, the Bisons were able to pull it together, beat their biggest rival twice to represent District 5 in the District 5-8 subregional championship game in Pittsburgh, and, after winning that game, pull off a thrilling triple-overtime victory against District 9 power Karns City to make it into the PIAA quarterfinals.
That's as far as a Bedford team has ever gone in the state playoffs.
"It was surreal. The whole thing,'' said Paul Detwiler, the undersized fullback and another of the team's captains. "Being a part of it, you know it's big. Practices sometimes were rough, but, whenever you're making it this far, you don't expect anything else.
"Even with the loss, it still feels like we'll have practice Monday. It doesn't feel like it ended.''
It has. Just a month of so later than anyone would have predicted.
It seems there was no urgency to the turnaround. The Bedford coaches didn't make any dramatic moved to change the course of the season when it was 1-5. Jimmy Chitwood didn't walk into a town hall meeting saving Smith's job by saying he'd join the team if the coach stayed.
It was a lot simpler than that.
"The kids came together as a team, and worked hard,'' Smith said. "No called the big team meeting. We just told them, 'You can do this. You just have to work hard.'''
Smith's primary leaders were quieter players like Detwiler and Ripple. Although turning it around was not made into a big production, Ripple said the seniors were letting it be known that the first half of the season's play wasn't acceptable.
"I knew we had to change something. The seniors had to step up and do something to turn this season around,'' Ripple said. "And we did it.''
To be fair, the schedule did play into the Bisons' favor. Bishop McCort and Chestnut Ridge were the only teams that had a winning record when they played Bedford down the regular-season stretch. Then, there was a rematch with Ridge for the championship among the three teams in District 5 and none of the teams in the Pittsburgh City League had more than three wins.
All that did was make the Bisons a huge underdog against Karns City, but that just fueled them. Wesley Tritt's blocked extra-point to force overtime and Bedford's eventual victory is the type of game that cemented this team's legacy and probably someday will be spoken of as if a heroic myth.
At the center of it was Smith, the unassuming long-time junior high coach that took over the team in 2008. Always quick with the joke and to pass the credit, Smith, who wore shorts throughout the playoffs, praised practically everyone but himself after the final game.
"I never expected to be here. It was a good run, and we had a few impressive wins,'' Smith said. "I'm really proud of my kids. Let me say something about my staff - the Crepses (Bill and Brian) and Dan Baker and Buck Black and Ben Bullington. They're the heart of my team. I just kind of run around and be crazy.''
Smith followed that up by mentioned about half of the team's 18 seniors individually. He also through in with that roll call one sophomore, quarterback/linebacker Marcus Shippey.
Shippey led the team in tackles and almost threw for 1,000 yards, showing a good deep-passing ability against Greensburg Central. The playoff run gave him an extra month's worth of practices, and he'll lead a solid contingent of returning Bisons in 2010.
"It's a big deal,'' Shippey said. "Coming into this, teams are a little quicker, a little bigger. It shows us what we need to do in the offseason to win next year. The next two years will be good ones.''
Bedford's run didn't only impact Shippey. Bison fans have come to expect football success. The last couple of seasons haven't lived up to the program's glorious past.
Halfway through the season, no one could have predicted this one would change the recent trend. That made these Bisons' accomplishments all the sweeter.
"They were saying to us, 'Whatever happens tonight, we're still proud of you,'' Ripple said. "'You turned the Bedford tradition around.'
"I definitely wish we could have made it farther, but I'm satisfied with this.''
Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or email@example.com