Somewhere between 40 years wandering the desert and 40 days navigating the arc, an unlikely journey proved similarly arduous to Lancaster Catholic and its fan base.
On the heels of a second state title in a three-year span, the Crusaders were pushed out of Section Three prior to the 2012 season — at a time the Mayan calendar suggested would be the end of all days — and left to navigate the unforgiving waters of the Lancaster-Lebanon League without a proper course.
Having proved themselves versus elite competition, however, the Crusaders made the difficult decision to jump up to Section One in 2012 before moving to Section Two in 2014, where they would battle with larger schools and other power-programs.
“Everybody doesn’t want us in Section One and Two, then Section Three wanted us out,” explained long-time head coach Bruce Harbach, noting the team’s corresponding move to Class Triple-A due to a co-op agreement with Lancaster Mennonite. “We decided with our (roster) numbers at that point — we had decent numbers and returning starters — we’ll take a shot at Section One.”
That decision set in motion a four-year experiment of sorts, replete with the ups and downs of what was an inevitably dwindling roster, while still having to duke it out with the likes of Section One’s Wilson and Section Two’s Manheim Central, among others.
But that experiment has ultimately come to a close. The Crusaders will be returning to the familiar ground of Section Three for the upcoming 2016 season.
“We were tired of being nomads the past couple years, so we’re back in the section we belong,” said Harbach, who nonetheless considers the decision to have played in Section One the right move at the time.
And that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of Harbach’s squad in recent seasons, either. Lancaster Catholic finished with a 3-7 mark a year ago and a combined 5-9 record versus Section Two opponents between 2014 and 2015.
Yet there’s a comfort level in returning to the place where the team’s successes all began, while also returning a fair number of starters from the previous season — including two-way players Christian Sweigert, Bryan Downey, and Ricky Poillon, who are all looking to build upon a solid junior campaign.
“I think we went into every week the same,” said Poillon of 2015, a year in which he caught 18 passes and was one of the Crusaders’ most productive defenders with 28 solo tackles. “We knew every week was going to be tough, and we just tried to give it our all.”
The consensus seems to agree, as well, that while Section Three is just as tough as Sections One and Two, there’s reason for optimism in returning to the teams’ roots.
“It’s been kind of weird going section to section and obviously our record hasn’t been as great as prior years,” said Downey, a dual-threat quarterback who eclipsed 1,000 yards through the air as well as on the ground last season. “Now that we’re settling in Section Three, we’re definitely looking to restart and getting our program where it used to be.”
Meanwhile, the Crusaders will have a new offensive coordinator in Gordon Eck and a new defensive coordinator in former Penn Manor head coach Todd Mealy, factors which will determine how soon Catholic can recapture its not-too-distant glory days.
“It’s always in the back of my mind because I have my brother over my shoulder talking about it,” began Sweigert, a receiver who hauled in fifteen receptions a year ago and whose brother, Charles, was part of the championship run. “It’s just a goal we have — I think everyone has — to be the best we can be.”
Harbach notes how difficult it will be to make Districts this year, let alone win it, what with the switch to six classifications — and only four of 15 Triple-A schools making the cut.
“I think that’s something the kids have to understand, that’s some of the history that we’re going to bring up the next couple weeks in practice,” stated the coach. “Bryan was sitting in the stands, Christian’s brother Charles was on our team, so they understand what it takes to get to the state championship.”
“Especially 2009 in the snow — I dreamed about playing in games like that,” Downey admitted, having already invoked the bond he has with the two receivers sitting at either side of him.
“I’ve been playing with these guys for a while, since even midget football,” the quarterback said. “So yea, we’re definitely looking forward to our senior season and have one last go together. It should be exciting.”