A Conversation about the RL 2006 Football Team.
Kyle Wagner has a long history at Red Land High School, as a Red Land High School teacher, coach, alumni, former athlete, and Red Land parent. His love of Red Land began the series; More Than Four. The Stories of Red Land Athletics. These conversations highlight stories about the players, coaches, and teams that have created or will create the history of Red Land High School Athletics.
"If we don't win this year, you can fire me."
Those were the words Head Football Coach Frank Gay used when discussing the 2006 season with Athletic Director Iris Cekovich. Those that know Coach Gay understand his tendency for bold and decisive action. He's not really a man for small talk and chit chat. He'd rather say what's on his mind and get to work. What apparently was on his mind in 2006 was so obvious to him that he was willing to stake his job on the claim.
Was it obvious to everyone? According to long time team doctor, Larry Cox, the answer was no.
"The 2006 didn't have the great, great talent of the previous years. I thought they had a chance to be a good team."
To add some context to Dr. Cox's sentiments, consider that Red Land had just witnessed some of the best football players to ever play at Red Land. Michael Cox (Georgia Tech) and Robbie Agnone (Delaware) formed a Division 1 backfield as recently as 2003 while Luke Cox (Georgia Tech) carried the ball the previous year in 2005. Dr. Cox's experience ('93 - present) rightfully permitted him to judge one group of athletes against another group of athletes. The way Dr. Cox saw it, they had some work to do.
The one mistake that many make when evaluating a football team is to assume that a team is merely a sum of its parts. Great teams require more than great players. They require great cohesion. They require great commitment. They require great resolve. These don't show up on a roster and seldom make a pre-season scouting report. These things evolve over time and are as fragile as the day is long. Great teams often get celebrated because anyone that has ever been a champion realizes how precious and how tenuous it is. They don't happen frequently.
2006 was a GREAT TEAM!
To a man, young and old, the reason this team became a great team was simple. The Senior Class was special.
The reality of sports is competition is so fierce that players and coaches don't have time to reflect on how good they are while they're competing. The moment is too big and the goal is too important to be distracted by thoughts of legacy. The 2006 team was simply a football team finding its way through a tough Mid-Penn Conference slate, winning every game that came their way. Until Susquehanna! The Susquehanna game was the slap to the collective face that said..."We may not win every game, but we are sure as hell going to get respect every game."
The particulars of who started it are somewhat vague. The particulars of who ended it are not.
On October 13th, 2006 Keith Peifer stood his ground on what this football team would accept and what they would not accept. After Susquehanna gave Red Land their first and only regular season loss, the Indians strolled past the Patriot bus. Victory on the field wasn't all the Indians wanted. Apparently, they were after the Patriots dignity too. Some verbal and nonverbal accusations were made and before any coach could prevent retaliation, Peifer was out the back of the bus.
"No question. Keith Peifer become our leader that night. Before we could say a word the back of the bus opened up and Peifer had a couple of Susquehanna players pinned against the bus. Thankfully, nothing more resulted but the statement was made."
- Frank Gay
The statement was clear. The Red Land Sr. class had invested too much time and energy to let any one team or any one game define their season. Behind Peifer, Cullen Dougherty, Chris Sierotowicz, Brian Danner, Matt Cox, Coty Shover, Ryan Dill, DeTwan Robinson, Tom Donadee, Justin Weyant, Kyle Boyer and any other Sr's I inadvertently missed, this group was about to turn a loss into the driving force that would cement their status as one of Red Land's GREAT TEAMS.
"We just played with a swagger. I know I didn't want to disappoint those guys."
- Scott Acri (So. class RB)
"The Sr. Class set the level of expectation. The Jr. class was extremely talented too but it was that Sr. class that would not let us settle for anything less than our best."
- Tom Peifer Offensive Coordinator
"They were all so selfless and humble. They're still friends to this day. They never made anyone feel small. They accepted every one on the team and made everyone feel like they had a role, even if it was a small role."
- Dr. Larry Cox
And yet, team chemistry doesn't pick up the stunting linebacker or read the free safety. Football, eventually, comes down to execution. What this Sr. class helped create was an environment where execution could be performed free of judgment. They played with their hair on fire and the coaches used it to develop their level of play to a championship level.
The 9-1 Patriots entered the District playoffs as an 8 seed. In a 16 team field, Red Land was right in the middle of the pack. High School seeds are driven by your won-loss record but also strength of schedule. A 9-1 Red Land team playing in the Mid Penn Keystone division placed 7 teams ahead of them. One of those teams was the undefeated Northern Polar Bears. They claimed the 1 seed. Any coach will tell you that seeds matter. They'll give lip service to the notion that it doesn't and you can only control what you control but those seeds are critically important. The 8 seed would run straight into the 1 seed in round 2 if they could survive game 1.
Red Land 35 West Perry 14. Game 1 was in the books but not without a scare. Late in the first half, trailing by 2, Coach Gay asked his Jr. QB Skyler Hunt to make a play. At the Mustangs 48, Red Land went for it on 4th and 14 with limited time on the clock. Hunt connected with Jr. Danny Klein for a huge first down. Three plays later Hunt hit Jr. Kyle Otstot to put the Patriots up for good. The game was closer than the score indicated. Red Land needed every bit of Matt Cox's 124 yards and 3 TD's to secure the victory.
On to Northern.
Legend has it that Frank Gay vomits before every game. Everyone deals with nerves differently. It's the nature of sport. Pour your heart and soul into something without the certainty of an outcome. Not everyone is willing to sign up for that. Red Land's season was on the line and nothing screams uncertainty quite like the 1 seed. Was Red Land the underdog? Did Northern's undefeated season foreshadow what was to come? Those are the thoughts that creep into a coach's game planning. Is our game enough or do we need some slight of hand to pull off the upset?
"I'll never forget it. We were walking in front of some Northern coaches before the game and one of them couldn't resist the temptation. He said loud enough for us to hear....WELCOME TO VARSITY FOOTBALL."
- Bill Chase Red Land Assistant Coach
Aside from the explicit taunt, it reeked of ignorance. Red Land was a rookie in the Mid Penn Keystone division in 2006. The previous couple of years they played in the very formidable larger school division; the Commonwealth. If anyone was going to stake a claim to knowing what a higher brand of football looked like, it was the 8 seed Patriots.
By all accounts there were two key plays in the game and both occurred near halftime. With Red Land trailing 7-3 Hunt hit Jr. Teed Wertz on a pass that moved the ball to the 1 yard line with 6.6 seconds on the clock. Eschewing a field goal, Matt Cox slammed the ball into the end zone but sprained his MCL. They lost their bruising tailback but took a lead to halftime. The opening kickoff of the 2nd half was a Ryan Dill special. Dill had that uncanny ability to find the hole on kickoff returns. Dill took it to the house and the rest as they say is history. But, the rest wasn't history. The rest involved a 2nd string tailback that was forced into action. In Matt Cox's absence, a star was born. Fellow Sr. Brian Danner who had deferred to Matt much of the season was thrust into the spotlight. Danner was short on experience but long on speed. That speed would become a valuable weapon in the weeks to come.
Red Land 45 Northern 7. Not bad for a JV team.
Losing Matt Cox this late in the season wasn't exactly in the cards. The youngest of the bulldozing Cox's created stability in the Patriot backfield. In his place would step Brian Danner. Brian Danner was also a baseball player. Brian Danner had the kind of speed that would make pitchers nervous on come backers to the mound. In other words, he could really, really run. And although he may not have possessed Cox's brute strength, he possessed something no one else on either team had...BLAZING SPEED.
The New Oxford Colonials would be next.
Red Land would attempt only 10 passes the entire game as the offense leaned on Danner and a fiercely motivated offensive and defensive line. Danner ended the game with 183 yards on 25 carries including a 70 yard touchdown run that speed permits. But, it wasn't the stats that caught my attention on this particular write up. It was the quotes from Sr. Keith Peifer and Jr. Aubrey Moore.
"Let me put it this way, we smelled blood and we went for it. Their heads were down so we kept driving and driving and driving."
- Keith Peifer
"We just came out in the second half with attitude. We weren't going to let them drive on us anymore."
- Jr. Aubrey Moore
If Red Land had a defensive star in 2006 it was Aubrey Moore. Aubrey was recognized as the Defensive Player of The Year by the Carlisle Sentinel. This quote epitomized Aubrey. When Aubrey decided something, it happened. He was a special combination of quickness and strength. You couldn't help but watch Aubrey and fellow Jr. defensive lineman Carl Sheaffer without an appreciation for how hard it must have been to game plan around those two. They played HARD! And, when Aubrey said "we weren't going to let them drive on us anymore" those that know Aubrey understood he wasn't talking in terms of points, he was talking in terms of yards.
Red Land 21 New Oxford 17
"We knew exactly what we were getting with Southwestern. We scrimmaged them in week 2. They were always one of our scrimmages. They destroyed us. They were clearly the better team."
- Bill Chase
Not a ringing endorsement for success in Red Land's first ever District Championship game. The Patriots were going to face the rugged champion of the York League and a team that had already proven their superiority very early in the year. But this team wasn't that team. The Patriots had grown immensely. Chase spoke at length about this game and it's place in Red Land lore.
"Say what you will about baseball and basketball but there's just something about football. You lay it on the line all season long and it just feels different. This group of coaches was very young and it mattered so much to them. It wasn't just the players. I honestly think the Southwestern game was the biggest football game in Red Land history. We whipped 'em right out of the gate. Honestly, it wasn't even close."
The stats suggest it might have been a little closer than memory suggests. Red Land out rushed S'western 157-144 and had 55 more passing yards. Brian Danner, yet again, carried the load with 132 rushing yards.
Red Land 21 Southwestern 12
District III Champions
Discussing the next game involves resentment and "what if's." Pottsville won the State semi-final game 17-7. The next week they lost in the state championship in overtime. Pottsville was a worthy representative in the state championship game. But, the Patriots were close. So, very close. Speaking of this game always involves discussions about the weather and field conditions. I'd rather not do that. I'd rather close this story on who this team was.
In 2006, I was the Head Baseball Coach at Red Land and many of these players were also my players. Adding some personal flavor to this story I'll simply add that this group of athletes was a very special mix of serious yet light hearted, confident yet humble, determined yet appreciative. I was in the stands for many of these games and it was an inspiring time for Red Land athletics.
Quotes that stood out while I conducted my interviews......
"Everything you taught Ryan Dill, he could implement." - Tom Peifer
"Cullen was a savage. He was always around the ball" - Teed Wertz
"Coty Shover was a tackling machine." - Tom Peifer
"It wasn't THAT risky. We relied on Matty all year and we we're getting the ball to start the 2nd half." - Bill Chase (on the Northern score before halftime)
"Cullen Dougherty was pound for pound one of the best linebackers I've ever coached." - Frank Gay
"Chris Sierotowicz cared about two things...winning and being a good teammate." - Dr. Larry Cox
"One thing that can't be overstated was Big Snel and Dave Payne. The lineman believed every word they said." - Tom Peifer
"Sierotowicz screamed at us before the Northern game.... "We don't answer to them. We don't answer to the media. We don't lie down for anyone." " - Scott Acri
"Skyler threw the most catchable football of any QB I've ever worked with." - Bill Chase
"Skyler threw for over 300 yards against Harrisburg. As a Freshman." - Bill Chase
"Aubrey and Carl were inseparable, best of friends... and tough SOB's" - Tom Peifer
"Our receivers were so smart. They'd not only run great routes but seemed to also have the clock inside their head too." - Bill Chase
"He (Matt Cox) wasn't just strong. He was quick. He might have been the most athletic of the Cox backs. Kyle, please print that. I want to see Michael and Luke's reaction." - Tom Peifer
"If it's a turf field, we win that game." - Frank Gay
POST GRADUATE FOOTBALL NOTES:
Skyler Hunt eventually quarterbacked at Susquehanna University
Keith Peifer played offensive tackle at Albany University.
Aubrey Moore attended Penn and played DT.
DeTwan Robinson attended North Carolina Central University where he played TE.
Matt Cox became a D2 All American (FB) at Bloomsburg. He also received a free agent try out with the New York Jets.
***To wrap things up, I'm going to defer to Bill Chase. When I was chatting with Bill he said "Kyle, one more thing if I may. I want to recognize Allen Proper (#77). Allen wasn't always the most glamorous of our lineman but we couldn't have done it without him. I know he just recently passed away but we all had so much respect for him and his approach to the game and quite frankly life. He gave all of us that much needed change of perspective when we tended to be all so serious. He was great for this team."
***This group of athletes lost two other young men much too soon; Jory Raber and Carl Sheaffer (#50).