York, PA - Janssen Nelson remembers the West York football team's last trip to Hershey. He was an eighth grader in 2008, when the Bulldogs played perennial power Manheim Central in the District 3 championship.
During that game, Nelson and a few other West York junior high players were given the chance to stand on the sidelines. They watched the Bulldogs varsity players pull off a 15-7 upset -- arguably the biggest victory in the program's history.
"It was a great experience," Nelson, a senior two-lineman, recalled at West York practice this week.
Tonight, the careers of Nelson and 23 other West York seniors will come full circle, when the Bulldogs (13-0) head to Hersheypark Stadium to face top-seeded Bishop McDevitt (13-0) in the District 3 Class AAA title game. The showdown of unbeaten teams kicks off at 7 p.m.
Much has changed since West York's last visit to this stage. But there are certainly parallels between this visit to Hershey and the Bulldogs' last one.
Once again, West York will occupy the underdog role, this time against a high-scoring Crusaders side going for its third straight district title. Earlier this week, a USA Today poll ranked McDevitt the No. 18 high school football team in the entire country.
"Just the fact that we get the opportunity to go up against them," Nelson said. "And I think we have a legitimate shot of beating them.
"We kind of like being the underdog."
Both teams have taken similarly convincing paths to this point. In three district playoff games, West York has outscored its opponents a combined 122-44; during the same span, McDevitt has outscored its opposition 109-41.
While the results have been similar, tonight's game will likely feature a clash of styles. Whereas the Crusaders have dizzied teams with a prolific offense and a high-flying passing attack, the Bulldogs have resorted recently to a more physical, punishing style.
Case in point: West York ran the ball 65 times for 365 yards during last week's 31-7 pounding of Susquehanna Township. It attempted one pass the entire second half.
Such bulldozing performances have been keyed by a senior-laden offensive line, which all season has been the Bulldogs' greatest strength.
"We'd love to be able to just pound it and pound it and pound it," West York coach Ron Miller said.
Doing so might also keep McDevitt's quick-strike attack -- piloted by quarterback Alec Werner -- on the sidelines. The Crusaders senior needs just 54 passing yards to reach the 3,000-yard milestone for the second straight season. He threw for 327 yards and two touchdowns during last week's 27-7 win against Lancaster Catholic.
Werner distributes to a bevy of breakaway threats, led by two go-to running backs -- Andre Robinson and Rashad Lawson -- and top receiver Brian Lemelle, a Division I prospect.
West York's defense, meanwhile, is allowing 13.1 points per game.
"Every week we get better. I can't see why this week would be different," said West York junior safety Justin Warfel. "We're talented enough and athletic enough to play with them."
Added Miller: "It's going to be very similar to last week (against Susquehanna Township). I get that they're going to get their yards. We just can't let the 80-yard touchdown go. We need to make them drive the ball and take it in pieces and give ourselves a fighting chance."
Tonight's winner will play Erie Cathedral Prep or West Allegheny in next week's PIAA semifinals.
So for the second time in five seasons, West York will head to Hersheypark Stadium as the upstart -- an unfamiliar spot for a team that has won each of its last 10 games by at least 17 points. It will represent a culmination of sorts for Nelson and his fellow seniors, a group which has approached this season with a Hershey-or-bust mentality.
Still, Miller sees one major difference from his team's last district title run.
"I think it's different this time around because we've had so much success since (2008)," Miller said. "We've won a lot of games since then. I don't think that they're going to take us all that seriously. They probably should. I hope they don't. But back in 2008, West York had been down for a few years. In '07, we made a little bit of run. Then boom, there we were.
"This time, it's been five years. We've been in the district semis a couple times. I still don't think we get any respect. But I think 13-0 is making people say, 'Maybe we better be a little bit more aware of them.'"
West York (13-0) by the numbersPoints per game: 35.9
Points allower per game: 13.1
Turnover ratio: plus-6
--- QB Brandon Kinneman, Sr. -- 90-168 (53.6 percent), 1,574 yards, 19 TDs, 5 INTs
--- Brock Snellbaker, Sr. -- 150 attempts, 881 yards, 5.9 avg., 11 TDs
--- James Johnson, Sr. -- 107 attempts, 605 yards, 5.7 avg., 6 TDs
--- Kinneman, Sr. -- 120 attempts, 544 yards, 4.5 avg., 12 TDs
--- Zack Smith, Sr. -- 60 catches, 1,085 yards, 18.1 avg., 15 TDs
--- Snellbaker, Sr. -- 12 catches, 213 yards, 17.8 avg., 3 TDs
Bishop McDevitt (13-0) by the numbersPoints per game: 39
Points allowed per game: 16.7
Turnover ratio: plus-13
--- Alec Werner, Sr. -- 175-250 (70 percent), 2,946 yards, 22 TDs, 6 INTs
--- Andre Robinson, So. -- 126 attempts, 943 yards, 7.5 avg., 17 TDs
--- Rashad Lawson, Jr. -- 126 attempts, 908 yards, 7.2 avg., 12 TDs
--- Sheldon Snell, So. -- 73 attempts, 395 yards, 5.4 avg., 7 TDs
--- Brian Lemelle, Sr. -- 81 catches, 1,444 yards, 17.8 avg., 10 TDs
--- Kobay White, Fr. -- 20 catches, 469 yards, 23.4 avg., 4 TDs