Almost immediately after York Catholic won its first District 3 title in 34 years on Saturday night, Fighting Irish senior running back Jakkar Kinard still couldn't fathom that he and his team were about to compete in the state playoffs.
It may have been because the euphoria from the team's 51-21 win over Newport was barely 15 minutes old, but Kinard had another reason.
Kinard said York Catholic spent all year focused on winning the District 3 Class 2-A championship. That was the primary goal on the team's radar for the previous 11 weeks. Of course, winning a district crown would automatically come with a state playoff berth, but the team wanted to win district gold first, after finishing as runner-up the previous three seasons.
Now, something that the 10-1 Fighting Irish never spoke about is reality, with their first-round state game just days away.
"States is something that, not a lot of us have thought about," Kinard said. "Now that it's here, it's also one of those dream-come-true kind of things to be in states, so I think we're going to have the same dedication toward it. The same drive to win."
Head coach Eric DePew and the rest of his coaching staff gave themselves and the players until Monday to bask in the glory of being District 3 champions. It was a feat that eluded the program for decades, so it needed to be enjoyed.
However, once school ended on Monday, it was back to work. There's some irony to York Catholic preparing for the state tournament this week because, in past seasons, when District 3 still only had four classes, this would be the week of the 1-A semifinals. So, the Fighting Irish are used to playing football at this point in November, but this still feels different because of the fact that they've already won a title and have extended their season at least one more week.
It's also not lost on the players that the days leading up to this Friday night's game are bigger because the stage is bigger. There are some schools around Pennsylvania that always set their sights on the state tournament and then build from there. York Catholic isn't one of those programs, having never made the state tournament in program history until this season. So, the Fighting Irish know how special this is. They're treating the week of practice like it's something larger.
"I think they're excited. I think they're looking forward to the challenge," DePew said. "It's sunk in for me because you're still playing, but, again, after the season ends, it'll all hit us here that we took care of the division, District 3 champs and hopefully see how far we can go on this state run."
Formidable opponent: In order to make this state appearance an official "run," York Catholic must first deal with District 2 champion Dunmore.
The Bucks enter the state tournament at 12-0 and are Lackawanna Football Conference Division III champions. They're also three-time reigning District 2 Class 2-A champions and last won a state championship in 1989.
A smash-mouth, run-it-down-your-throat team, DePew knows that there won't be any wrinkles to Dunmore's offensive philosophy, so it'll be up to his players to stop the Bucks.
"They're going to come right at you," he said. "They're a physical football team that's going to run the ball. They don't really do anything fancy. They're just going to come right at you. I kind of compare them to the attitude of Bermudian Springs, where they just want to run it down your throat and be physical with you up front and win it there."
Senior Kyle Lasher is Dunmore's leading rusher, with 1,202 yards on the ground on only 118 carries, good for a 10.2 yards-per-carry average. He's also scored 20 touchdowns. He's joined in the backfield by senior Colin Holmes, who's also averaging nearly nine yards per carry, rushing for more than 800 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Quarterback Gavin Darcy has only thrown for 708 yards on the season and the Bucks' offense is averaging 351.3 yards per game.
On defense, Dunmore has allowed 1,405 rushing yards, which will surely be tested by the Fighting Irish's relentless ground game. York Catholic enters as the York-Adams League's top rushing team, averaging 288.9 yards per game on the ground. Kinard leads the league in rushing with 1,953 yards and quarterback Dan Yokemick is also a 1,000-plus-yard rusher.
"It's going to come down to the line this week," junior lineman Matt Knauer said. "...We need to be aggressive like last Saturday. It's won at the line of scrimmage and we just need to be more aggressive than we have been lately."
Friday's game is set to be played at Hazleton's Harman-Geist Stadium, with kickoff scheduled for 7 p.m.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org