York, PA - In a game with more than its fair share of compelling story lines, it's one that's impossible to ignore.
More than two decades ago, Russ Stoner was a star football player at West York -- the bellweather running back of the 1988 Bulldogs team that won the program's first District 3 championship.
This time, when Stoner returns to his alma mater, he'll do so hoping to snuff out unbeaten West York's hopes of another such title. The second-year Spring Grove coach will pace the visitors sidelines, as his tenth-seeded Rockets (8-3) and the second-seeded Bulldogs (11-0) clash in a District 3 Class AAA quarterfinal.
It's a location Stoner is not entirely unfamiliar with. "I've been back before," Stoner said at his team's practice Tuesday.
Plenty of times, in fact. Stoner spent 16 years as an assistant at Central York -- perhaps the Bulldogs' biggest rival. And he coached his Rockets at West York in Week 3 of this season, a game Spring Grove dictated in many ways but still lost, 21-17.
The stakes will be higher this time, of course, both for Stoner's team and the West York program he once led as a player. Former Bulldogs coach Terry Bupp called Stoner the "most versatile" player he ever had.
"He had this instinct for the game," said Bupp, now West York's assistant athletic director. "He was sort of like having another coach on the field when he was playing."
Stoner still has plenty of connections to West York, too. He lives in the district. His children go to school there.
"It's always tough to stand on the other sideline," he said, "but it's a choice I made, and I'm OK with it."
Besides, there are more important things for he and his team to worry about this week.
The Rockets, 1-9 a year ago, have been this season's turnaround story. Their springboard, in some ways, was that Week 3 loss to West York, during which Spring Grove held the Bulldogs to 189 yards of offense. The Rockets did not lose again until Week 10, en route to a share of the YAIAA Division I title.
Last week they bulldozed No. 7 seed Shippensburg, limiting the Greyhounds to minus-5 rushing yards during a 24-0 win.
West York has been pretty good itself, turning in the program's first perfect regular season since head coach Ron Miller took over seven years ago. When asked about Friday's game, Stoner heaped praise on the Bulldogs.
"They are by far the best team in our area," Stoner said. "Coach Miller is undoubtedly one of the best coaches ever in this area. They have videos out on YouTube of being Division I, Division II champions. They're the 1985 Chicago Bears.
"Ultimately what we're trying to do is just go down there and compete with them, try not to get blown off the field."
Rockets rusher: Few area running backs have been more productive of late than Spring Grove's Jeff Delaughter. The junior has run for at least 100 yards in each of the last six games. In that span, Delaughter has piled up 1,042 of his 1,496 yards this season.
Slowing Delaughter will be job No. 1 for a West York defense that is allowing just 9.7 points per game.
"Their quarterback and Delaughter, those are the two keys," Miller said, referring also to Rockets signal caller Matt Runge. "They're pretty hard to stop. You stop one, and the other gets you."
Double trouble ... again: Speaking of 1,000-yard rushers, Bermudian Springs (11-0) once again has two of them. Junior fullback Tristan Sponseller (1,062 yards) cracked four digits this Friday. He joins the team's leading rusher, senior Zach Stroup (1,230), heading into Friday's rematch with Division III rival Biglerville (9-2).
It marks the third straight year the Eagles have had a pair of rushers break the 1,000-yard barrier. Only one other YAIAA team has accomplished the same feat in that span (South Western in 2011).
Central's tall task: One of the YAIAA's top offenses will meet perhaps the district's most dominant defense Friday, when No. 8 seed Central York (8-3) travels to top-seeded Wilson (10-1).
In 11 games this season, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 5.9 points. They've notched five shutouts, including last week's 48-0 win against Dallastown.
Central, meanwhile, has posted 35.3 points per game this season.
"When you watch them play defense, it's really hard to find a weakness anywhere," Panthers coach Brad Livingston said of Wilson. "They don't make many mistakes. They line up where they should be. They know their assignments.
"It's pretty easy to see why their stats are the way they are. What you have to try to do is hopefully find a play here or there. Maybe somewhere along the line you catch them."
John Clayton is a prep sports reporter for the Daily Record/Sunday News. Reach him at 771-2045 or firstname.lastname@example.org.