Back before the 2016 high school football season began, York Catholic head coach Eric DePew and his staff made it a point to show their players just how long it's been since the Fighting Irish program had won any kind of title.
The last time the football team hung a banner inside the school for a York-Adams League division title was back in 1992. A District 3 championship banner hasn't been hung since 1982.
Some programs would shy away from bringing up the past and a long championship drought, afraid of putting too much pressure on the current team to be the one to snap it. Instead, York Catholic embraced it, using it as motivation going into the season.
The Irish have had success in their own right in the five prior seasons under DePew. They've made it to three straight District 3 1-A title games and are in prime position to make it four straight District 3 championship game appearances this year, their first in 2-A. But, in each of the past three seasons, all York Catholic has to show for its effort is a pair of eight-win campaigns and a 6-6 effort last year. No championships and no banners.
Which is why this season is shaping up to be different.
"I just think the kids are hungrier this year," DePew said of his 2016 team, which is 7-1 overall and 5-0 in York-Adams Division III. "I could tell in the offseason, they were hungry and they wanted to get over this hump. We talked about it and the kids really worked hard in the summer and started really focused and sticking together as a team."
Poised for greatness: Entering the year, the Irish had the look of a team expected to contend for the Division III crown.
They were returning the league's leading rusher from a year ago, Jakkar Kinard, as well as starting quarterback Dan Yokemick and several other starters from last year's District 3 runner-up team.
Even with a number of returners making up the 2016 roster, York Catholic would still need to make a dramatic improvement after going just 5-5 in the 2015 regular season.
The players, however, felt a closer bond with each other than in past seasons, which has helped the product on the field.
"This team is probably one of the best teams I've ever been on in terms of camaraderie," senior Brenden Kennedy said. "We do everything together all the time on the weekends. Even when we're not supposed to be here practicing, we're always together and I think that when it comes down to it on the field, when we have to have each others' backs, we can because we're all friends."
That bond has the Irish sitting at No. 1 in the latest District 3 Class 2-A power ratings, ahead of No. 2 Newport (8-1). The top two teams in the final power ratings will advance directly to the district 2-A championship game.
Establishing dominance: By the time the first couple weeks of the season were over, it was obvious that this was a different Irish team than in past seasons. In Week 1, they took down a York Suburban team that could be on its way to the District 3 4-A playoffs and then knocked off another 4-A school Week 2 in Susquehannock. They were humbled in their home opener in Week 3 by a strong Berks Catholic school, another 4-A program, but have won every game since.
It's also telling that, in York Catholic's two biggest games of the division schedule, Week 6 against Littlestown and Week 8 against Bermudian Springs, the two teams that would challenge the Irish for the Division III title, they rose to the occasion and played two of their best games of the season.
In the win over the Thunderbolts, York Catholic scored as many points in the victory — 29 — as Littlestown allowed in its first five games of the season. Then, in last week's 35-7 win over the Eagles, not only did the Irish have one of their best scoring outputs of the year, but Kinard ran for a season-high 281 yards and four touchdowns during the rout.
"We have guys that always step up," Kennedy said. "With Dan and Jakkar, we know that we can rely on them because when it comes down to it, they always have big games when we need them to. They're really reliable guys."
With one win in either of its final two games vs. a pair of 4-4 teams (Fairfield and York Tech), York Catholic will end the division title drought with at least a share of the crown. By winning out, the Irish will have the title all to themselves, and a new banner to go with it.
York Catholic football is a program full of varying degrees of success and winning seasons.
The only thing missing over the past couple of decades, however, have been championships.
This year's team is looking to end all of that.
"It's been 20 years and our seniors have been there a couple times," junior lineman Liam Landis said. "So, I think if us juniors could do that for them this year, that would just be awesome."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com