After giving the community more reason to attend its high school football games than it had for several years, can the 2011 Mifflinburg Wildcats deliver an encore?
Coach Jason Dressler believes so, and he has 10 reasons for his opinion. That is how many starters are set to return for the Wildcats, who followed back-to-back 3-7 seasons with an 8-3 campaign that included a Heartland Athletic Conference Division I championship and berth in the District 4 Class AA playoffs.
Dressler agreed that what the team accomplished this year is a step in the right direction for a program that was five years removed from its last playoff team and winning record.
"Their work ethic in the off-season is only going to help continue what they started this season. Obviously we are going to be optimisitc for them going into next season already," Dressler said.
The coach backed up his assessment by relating how his underclassmen responded after last week's loss to visiting Bloomsburg in the district quarterfinals.
"They were asking when could we watch the game film, and talked about how they wanted to get started lifting weights right away. That is the type of kids they are," Dressler said.
There were also some seniors who helped make sure that their younger teammates would have a high bar to clear in 2012.
"It is tough, but they left the season with no regrets and playing hard, and that was one thing we talked about going in," Dressler said.
"We told them we have no more scheduled games and it comes down to the game you are playing -- 'play with no regets and the best you can, play every down as hard as you can.' The senior class was able to do that. They weren't happy with the outcome of the game, but they certainly played hard and gave it their all," he said.
Coaches in the preseason talked about Mifflinburg as a possible contender, but, after its results in recent years, most also wanted to see proof before anointing Mifflinburg as the team to beat.
Was the 7-0 start and championship season a surprise to the coaching staff?
"I am happy for the team and happy for the program for getting to that point and for what we've accomplished," Dressler said. "We knew we had the kids, the athletes. It was just a matter of having the right mindset and getting the team where they needed to be," he said.
But the Wildcats' coaches and players believed, and that was all that counted. There should be way fewer doubters as the 2012 season gets underway.
"One of the goals was to put Mifflinburg back on track and be a competitive squad and they certainly accomplished that this season," Dressler added. "I am very pleased where we are at and the direction we are heading."
While coaches like to preach the one-game-at-a-time philosophy, Dressler agreed that the team will have lofty goals in 2012. "One of the many goals will be to come back and win the HAC-I title again and not just qualify for the playoffs, but get deeper in the playoffs and going after a district championship. Those will all be part of the goals for next season."
INJURY UPDATE: Last week's game went later than usual, the result of two long injury timeouts -- for Mifflinburg senior tight-end/linebacker Bradee Ruhl and junior quarterback Kyle Failor. Both were carted from the field and taken by amublance to a hospital. Dressler reported that both are recovering. He said Ruhl sustained a bruised tailbone which will take a while from which to recover and Failor, who also plays basketball, sustained no broken bones and was walking this week without crutches. He said Failor, who led the team to a successful season after taking over in week two after a season-ending injury to Alex Vidunas, was scheduled to get an MRI this week.
FOOTBALL COUNTRY: Rather than lamenting his team's tough plight of having to face the perennial state championship contending Southern Columbia Tigers year after year, and the difficulty of getting into the state playoffs, Line Mountain coach Mike Carson likes what this annual showdown and others say about the Valley football picture.
"I think it says something really positive about the strength of football in our area. The run that Lewisburg had last year (a loss in the Class AA state semifinals) and two years ago Selinsgrove went 16-0 (and won the Class AAA state title), (is evidence that) we play in a football-rich area. If you are going to go anywhere in the state playoffs, you are going to run into high-caliber teams," he said, adding that Southern is the preeminent small-school program in the East.
"There have been teams that cropped up, but no one with the consistency of Southern. Earlier they won five state titles in a row. It is a great program, it is extremely well coached, and the kids play with a lot of pride and determination," he said.
Carson said that, if his team would be fortuante enough to win Friday night, "We are going to run into another team that's got the same type of pride and passion. We are playing a very good football team that happens to be there year after year," he said of tonight's showdown at Tiger Stadium.
n Assistant sports editor Harold Raker covers high school football for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.