The rain fell on a chilly October Saturday morning three years ago and perfectly captured the South Williamsport football atmosphere.
The Mounties were 0-6 and had experienced just one winning season since 1999. Still, those players kept fighting and staged an impromptu pregame workout hours before they traveled to Canton and faced the heavily favored defending NTL Small School champions. Everyone outside the South locker room told the Mounties they had no chance, but those wearing the uniforms refused to believe it.
A few hours later, Brandon Gantz caught a deflected pass in the end zone with 11 seconds left and South recorded a huge 7-6 upset. It was South's only win that year but it was significant in the program's history because of the freshmen who played in that game and witnessed it from the sidelines.
South Williamsport’s Brandon Stonge, center, is one of 18 seniors on this year’s team. South plays at Southern Columbia on Friday.
Those freshmen are now seniors and have laid the foundation for the rebirth of South football. Those seniors learned what hard work can do that rainy day and never forgot it.
And now the sun has broken through the clouds and shines bright on the Mounties. South is one of the district's best teams and Friday it plays at Southern Columbia for the District 4 Class A championship.
"We all work really hard and have a great, senior-based team," said senior fullback Brandon Stonge, who recorded his first 100-yard game in that 2009 Canton upset. "We have 18 seniors this year and it's been great. I think our whole team rallies around that senior core of guys."
This senior group has played together for the last three to four years and has restored the luster to a program that was one of the state's best in the 1990s. They have helped increase South's win total each year and now the Mounties (10-1) have the program's first 10-win season since 1997.
Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Last Friday, South hosted Bloomsburg in the district semifinals. Just like in that Canton game, few outside South thought the Mounties had a chance even though they beat Bloomsburg in the season opener.
It was not about what South had not done and had everything to do with what Bloomsburg had done the last two weeks, beating HAC-I champion Danville and HAC-II champion Central Columbia. Once again, South made a resounding statement, those seniors not forgetting the lessons they had learned from previous Mountie leaders.
South dominated Bloomsburg in all facets, stifled one of the district's best offenses and recorded a dominant 32-16 win. If that Canton win three years ago laid the seeds for success among this senior class, Friday's win helped it reach full bloom.
"Having each other's backs is the biggest thing. You can't let anything slip up, especially with a season like this," senior offensive lineman Marco Estrella said. "Everyone was working in the offseason and this was very important."
Estrella was one of 18 seniors who could have buckled when things looked bleak a few years ago. The Mounties won only three games combined in 2009-10 and getting back to that decorated past seemed like a pipe dream to many. These seniors never quit, though. They did not want to be the ones who added to the struggles, they wanted to be the ones who turned it all around.
Consider that mission accomplished.
The Mounties made big strides in coach Chris Eiswerth's first season last year, going 4-6 and missing a .500 season by seconds. This year, they took the biggest step yet, opening the season with two dramatic come-from-behind wins against two former bullies. That set the tone for a memorable season and now South is 10-1 and an outright league champion for the first time in 13 years. This is the first Mountie team to win a playoff game and reach a district final since 1997 and this is the group that has showed future South teams exactly how to go about their business.
"I've been through a lot through the years, good and bad and the message we're trying to send to the kids is to always work hard, always persevere and always keep your head up," said Eiswerth, a former South quarterback. "We're trying to sell that to the community. These kids stayed committed when all there was was faith and that is huge. They talk about Penn State and all those kids sticking it out and staying and these kids stuck it out, too. That is so big because we're trying to build men and we're trying to create a relationship with the community and my hat goes off to these guys."
Look at both sides of the ball and one sees seniors making huge impacts. Stonge is the program's all-time leading rusher, fellow running back Matt Bartholomew has had two straight big years, quarterback Tyler House broke the program's single-season touchdown pass record and an all-senior offensive line has been brilliant. Justin Knee is one of the area's best linebackers, Andrew Gipe has been terrific at cornerback and Heath Newcomer set the tone against Bloomsburg with a crunching hit on the game's first play.
The seniors are a talented group, but the road is littered with talented area teams from the past that never really achieved much. What has helped this class accomplish so much is the work put in during the offseason.
South ended its 2011 season last Nov. 4 when it beat Montgomery, 35-16. The 2012 season began just two months later.
"We don't take a break," Estrella said. "We have about one or two months off. We started in January and they'll be starting again in January, lifting and doing speed training. It doesn't stop. It's year-round. Coach is very good about making sure we have a good work ethic and making sure we keep things put together."
Now, the coaches and players have put everything together. South has won seven straight games, its only loss coming against Southern Columbia. Southern controlled that game, but South has come a long way since.
The seniors have come longer than most can imagine during their scholastic careers. They have been the ultimate underdogs the last four years and have thrived in that role. This is a team that enjoys making those who bet against them pay.
This team paid the price and is now reaping the rewards.
"I have been real pleased with how many people have supported the guys," Eiswerth said. "It's huge for the young kids to see that and see that this is something that could possibly change their lives. That's what we're trying to do and this group has got it. They have done everything we've asked them to do and it's really been fun."