Mount Airy Bulldogs youth football coach Mike Marquez says that his program's coaches always tell their players to shoot for the playoffs each year.
"We always tell them that making the playoffs is our traditional goal from the beginning. You can't go to the Super Bowl without first making the playoffs," said Marquez, who coaches the 13-under varsity team.
Well, Mount Airy's varsity and junior varsity teams each achieved that playoff goal this year. But each was stopped short of the Super Bowl.
In early November's playoff games, the Junior Varsity lost 36-14 to Urbana, and the Varsity was ousted 36-6 by Martinsburg, West Virginia-based Spring Mills.
But the two squads still combined to go 16-5 this season.
The Mount Airy 12-under JV returned only two members from last year's 9-3 team. The rest had moved up to make the Bulldogs varsity one of the best teams in its conference. However, the junior varsity had only 13 full-time players this season plus a few called up on an as-needed basis from time to time.
But on the other hand, if you wanted to play football and hated sitting, Scott Gardner's Bulldogs JV team was the place to be. Gardner says he thought from the beginning that his team would be a good one because of the players' work ethic and camaraderie. But it had more going for it than that.
Mount Airy relied on good, old-fashioned ground-and-pound football to score its points. And it would be pretty successful in its efforts. Mount Airy's 197 points led its conference and were second only to Urbana in the 12-under division as a whole.
"We play power football, and we work to establish running the ball. Our offensive line really improved over the course of the year, and that was the key to every success," Gardner declared.
And defensively, its 70 points given up were third-lowest in the Junior Varsity's Mountain Conference. The Bulldogs won their first four regular-season games, including a 6-0 decision over Middletown, before losing to Oakdale 7-0.
Gardner says these two matchups are always the key regular season games for his team. How well his Bulldogs do against them determines how well the their season will go.
"Middletown and Oakdale are quality organizations. They are usually the measuring stick for us," Gardner explained.
His team closed out its regular season with four more consecutive wins, thus bringing its record to 8-1. That was its best mark in recent years, and was good enough for second place. However the coach was under no illusions about the road ahead.
"I thought we had the ability and desire to go far (in the playoffs). But when you depend on power football, at the end of the season, every team you face is quality," Gardner said.
Mount Airy faced Boonsboro in its opening playoff game Nov. 4. The Bulldogs controlled the ball most of the time in the first half and were ahead 12-0 at halftime. They moved on to a 20-6 win.
That brought up Urbana in the following weekend's semifinal. The Valley Conference-leading Hawks had the best defense and offense in the JV this year statistically speaking. Its 272 points and 47 yielded were both tops.
However, Gardner's team actually led in this game, scoring a touchdown on its first possession.
"But their quarterback ran 60 yards on their first play from scrimmage to tie it. We moved the ball well but couldn't convert, and they led 24-6 at halftime. In the second half, we settled in, but the damage had been done," Gardner related.
However, he had kind words for his little squad.
“It was tough on the kids to lose, but for 12 or 13 kids to get that far is pretty good,” he said.
Marquez's varsity team had better numbers — 21. But he had another problem. His players were small and there is no weight limit between the tackles in the league’s Varsity Division.
His youngsters, the heaviest of which was about 170 pounds, had to play against interior linemen who weighed as much as 220 pounds and averaged about 200.
Despite the weight disadvantage, Marquez didn't change the team's offense to compensate for its lack of size by running outside or throwing more. He didn't alter the team's traditional style of running attack.
"We worked harder than anybody else. That's why we did as well as we did," Marquez said.
His Bulldogs lost two of their first three games this season.
"We were getting a little nervous.The kids realized that to make the playoffs, they would have to win out, and that was what they wound up doing," he said.
They also developed the useful knack of winning the close ones. Four of their final six games were decided by a touchdown or less, and the Bulldogs won all of them.If they needed to make a play, they made it.
The Bulldogs went 7-2, finishing in a three-way tie for first place in the Mountain Conference. They won all five of their games that were decided by a touchdown or less.
"We won some games we probably should have lost, but we came together and pulled them out. We really believed in each other," Marquez said.
In the first-round varsity playoff game Nov. 4, they faced Martinsburg-based Spring Mills. The Junior Cardinals, 8-1 and first in the Valley Conference, had outscored Mount Airy by 100 points during the regular season.
Unfortunately for the local kids, Martinsburg would be the end of the road for them.
Mount Airy didn't score until the third quarter, and by that time, Spring Mills had pulled well ahead.
"But even though we were down, we kept fighting. They could have wimped down or quit, but they kept on fighting until the end," Marquez observed.