DuBOIS - There never was any doubt the 2013 Central High School football team had the talent to go far.
The question had more to do with whether or not that ability could be harnessed, making players not unlike wild stallions who were very capable of doing things running off on their own into a nearly unbeatable team, a collection that worked together for a common goal.
A year ago, the Scarlet Dragons, despite being almost universally acknowledged as the more gifted group of individual athletes, bowed out of the District 6 playoffs ungracefully with a stunning home loss to lower-seeded Forest Hills in the quarterfinals.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Members of the Central football team head off the field at the end of the game.
On Saturday, the Dragons closed the book on their season in the state quarterfinals as the District 6 champions and just a half-quarter from making it to the PIAA Class AA final four with a 37-27 loss to Hickory on Saturday afternoon at E.J. Mansell Stadium.
"I'm just glad that we came together as a team," Central lineman Ty Miller said. "We learned from our mistakes and tried to come together, just mesh together better as a team and work together better."
Miller was one of 21 Scarlet Dragon football players to suit up for the last time on Saturday. Eight of them were Mountain League all-stars this season, including Austin Cunningham and Bradi Moore at multiple positions.
That number of all-star honorees actually was fewer than last year. Dragons held 15 slots on the all-Mountain League team in 2012, but they played three weeks longer and won three more games in 2013, finishing 11-3 to tie Central's 2008 team for most wins in a season.
Along the way, Central avenged its loss to Forest Hills and unseated Richland, the defending district champion, a PIAA semifinalist a year before and a heavy favorite to repeat.
"We really played well to beat them, and we played a strong game here," said Central coach Dave Baker.
Baker accomplished a couple of milestones of his own, picking up his 150th career coaching victory and being part of his first-ever district championship in more than 30 years at the helm.
From a statistical standpoint, Central was very much the same team in 2013 as 2012. Its points per game and points allowed were within two points, albeit improved in both categories. Both teams were 8-2 in the regular season, and both lost to Clearfield and Fort Hill to enter the 6-AA tournament as the third seed.
Yet, this year's team managed to accomplish more when it counted the most.
"We just learned that every single team has a chance to do something incredible," said tight end-defensive lineman Adam Frederick, one of the team captains. "You have to work together as a team, and you can never give up, no matter what.
"We were striving to win a district title, as well as a state title. I thought we played with a lot of heart. The seniors played with a lot of heart, and the underclassmen played with a lot of heart."
It was a group that had grown up together and found success together at the lower levels, going undefeated in junior high. Inside that team dynamic, there was a lot of pride to be the best individually. Cunningham and Moore seemingly took turns one-upping each other in big plays, yardage and touchdowns, Austin Conrath gave a touch of brute force on the defensive line and at fullback, where he alternate with Zac Emerick, a grinder who came up with a lot of big plays, particularly on defense.
Frederick was a great blocker but also a deep receiving threat at tight end, while Jared Ponder was a top pass rusher and defensive play-maker. Miller keyed an upperclassman-heavy line, which included the competitive Lythgoe twins - Collin and Casey - first-year starting center Justin Prokop, Austin Smith and Zac Shultz.
Mike Mock and Zach Slagenweit were often unsung, but the Dragons probably wouldn't have beaten Richland without their major contributions in the district final, and they might have been players who would have put up much bigger numbers on a team that required them to do so.
"The competition between us all was very high," Ponder said. "It pushed us all to go above and beyond what we could imagine doing."
While the starting lineup will have a much different look next season, Central might not take that big of a drop-off. Sophomore quarterback Noah Benton is a promising passer, and the Dragons lost two games combined on the junior varsity and varsity levels.
Whether Baker returns has yet to be determined. He's getting close to 70, and he was using two canes to get around in the playoffs as he prepares for hip replacement in mid-December. He said he likes to take a couple of weeks to let his emotions settle before thinking about whether or not to return, but he spoke on Saturday like someone already leaning toward coming back.
For most of the Dragons, that isn't an option. However, they left having made a statement and lived up to their potential.
"We've been playing since we were little, and we always wanted to go as far as we could when we were seniors in high school," Miller said. "Obviously we came pretty far. We just fell a little bit short at the end."
"I'm glad to be a Central Dragon," Frederick said.