For the first time in the history of Danville Area High School, its football team has advanced to the state's semifinal game — something that is firing up both longtime and new fans of the team, and people throughout the borough.
The Ironmen play at 1 p.m. Saturday at Wyomissing in the PIAA Class 3A semifinals.
In 2012, the Ironmen made the state quarterfinals and lost to Wyomissing, the team they play this week. That Wyomissing team went on to win the state title. The Ironmen are 8-1 overall and won the first-ever inter-district playoff game last week against Archbishop Carroll. Until this year, the farthest any Danville had ever advanced was the 2012 team that lost to Wyomissing.
Despite COVID-related restrictions on crowds that have been able to watch this year's games in person, the team "feels the excitement in the community," said head coach Mike Brennan, on Wednesday. Danville has been allotted 250 tickets, which mostly will go to families and guests of players.
"The kids are really excited. Absolutely," said Brennan, who won two state titles as the coach at Mount Carmel. "They've earned this opportunity. It's been a long time coming. They didn't know what was going to happen, back in the winter, spring and summer months. It has been a week-by-week process with COVID. Day-by-day even. To come from that first meeting in January to the opportunity to play in the state final, in light of what's happened this year ... it seems like an eternity."
The team is aware of Danville, at large, and not just the school campus, being excited.
"We feel it. It's been different, no doubt about it," he said. "The crowds at games have been down due to safety regulations. We talk about playing for ourselves and improving our game every day. We are getting a lot of feedback from the community. A recognition that although we cannot see a lot of people face to face, we know about the support.
"And we play for one another," he added. "Despite the pandemic, we are still getting positive support from the Danville community. And that support I know has helped get us ready from week to week."
Chris Johns, director of student services and activities, noted that "our community is obviously extremely excited about the success of our football team during COVID. We have been so fortunate to make it through the season and with the added success, it has really been a unique situation for everyone.
"I do sense there is a buzz among students about this team," Johns said on Tuesday. "It is somewhat difficult to track because you don't see all of the kids in one place at one time. If this were non-COVID times, there would certainly be rallies and bonfires."
The high school is on an every-other-day attendance model since September and some students are fully remote and haven't been back to school in-person since March.
Despite all of that, Johns said, "it has not dampened the excitement at all. Because I know our kids are in contact, whether through social media or other means, rather than traditionally seeing each other face-to-face. It's really a unique situation in that you can feel the level of excitement and the people around the program and in the community express it in many different ways."
Johns believes there is a "connectedness between the players and the outside Danville fan community. The kids feel the excitement and know that the energy is there."
It's been really difficult to tell long-time fans that they couldn't get tickets this year, Johns said. "It's been difficult to have to exclude our band, for example. But the number of spectators has been really limited by COVID mitigation recommendations."
But people have found ways to connect with the team, whether through watching games that are streamed or listening to radio broadcasts.
Another thing is the support of community fire companies.
"After we won the district title against Montoursville fire trucks showed up and drove our kids through town — a little impromptu parade," he said. "And something similar happened this past weekend when we won our first state quarterfinal game."
Johns, who lives downtown, said there is a buzz in the Danville community as a whole.
"People come up to me consistently," Johns said, "whether it is going to the grocery store at Weis, or when I go to Coles Hardware and say how excited they are about the team and the program."
Greg Simas, Danville Area High School Football Booster president said, "As far as excitement goes, I don't think COVID has put a damper on that at all. I don't think COVID has affected the excitement whatsoever."
Obviously, he said, "more people in the community would like to be able to attend the games. I have always spoken highly of the way Danville fans travel. I'd say we have the most supported team, at least in the district, on the road and at home. I don't think that has changed due to COVID. You just can't see these games in person as much. I know we have some extreme, diehard fans — Ironmen through and through."
Simas works out every morning at a fitness club in Danville. His morning routine has been interrupted all fall. "I could barely get a workout because all they wanted to talk about was Danville football, and how excited they are about the opportunity ahead for these young men."
Simas has a son, Tyler, who is a four-year starter on the team.
The team, Simas said, "is very excited. Being the booster's president I get to interact with the team maybe more than most people," he said. "They are extremely excited about the opportunity they have."
What's exciting is that this game, the state semi-finals — "we all should be excited because this is the first time in the history of Danville football. Last week was the first state playoff game we've ever won. No matter what happens Saturday the 2020 team is the most successful team in the history of Danville football."
"No way I miss this"
One way or another, longtime Ironmen fans Robert Buehner and Ralph Harner are not going to miss this game.
Buehner on Tuesday night said he has been watching the team for 63 years and has been a season ticket holder for 41 straight years — "until this year," he said.
Buehner believes this team is "one of the schools top three teams ever. I am seriously excited about this game.
"I'm going to watch the game live," Buehner said. Buehner posted a comment about last Saturday's win versus Archbishop Carroll on the Danville Past, Present, and Future Facebook page, he said.
"It got over 400 'likes' and 100-plus comments. Judging by the number of responses to my Facebook comments, Danville alumni from all over the country are offering congratulations and cheering for their team this Saturday," he said.
"I've been to every game this season, three of which I've watched from outside the fence," Buehner said. "I'm going to watch Saturday's game live. I'll watch by bringing a ladder and binoculars if I have to."
Harner has been attending games for more than 57 years, he said, Tuesday night.
"I've been talking to a lot of people about this team, this year, they are so good," Harner said.
"I never miss a game," he continued. "Even this year, when the number of tickets was restricted, I was outside the fence looking in. Even when it was cold outside, my wife would stay in the car, but I'd be out there."
Harner said he'd be leaving early on Saturday morning to get to the game. "I'm ready to go. No way I'm missing this," he said.