Following a 31-7 loss to Dallastown in early October, the South Western High football team gathered for a 90-minute meeting. The Mustangs had been fighting and complaining too often in huddles.
"We weren't working as a whole unit," Mustangs coach Damian Poalucci said. "We said, 'Let's talk about this. If you have something to say to somebody, now's the time.' We looked each other in the eyes, and guys called each other out. That set us on the right path. The basic Mustang spirit is still alive."
The Mustangs would lose their next game 54-13 to Central York, which earned a share of the YAIAA Division I title, but they finished with three consecutive wins to earn a berth in the District 3 Class AAAA playoffs. That gave them consecutive Class AAAA appearances for the second time in school history.
South Western (6-5) was led by junior running back Dillon Thomas. According to South Western statistics, Dillon set a single-season school record -- breaking Joe Myers' record from 1991-- and is about 200 yards shy of Allen Bittinger's career rushing record.
Thomas needed a midseason meeting to work on reducing his fumbles -- he lost five of six -- and focused on securing the ball with his wrist above his elbow. He also needed the meeting to learn to drop when multiple tacklers have him.
"If you have five guys on you, there's no fault in falling down," Poalucci said. "You're just going to get beat up in the long run. That's his mentality, fighting for yards."
Thomas made the adjustments, rushing for 160 yards against Red Lion, 198 against William Penn and 194 in a first-round playoff loss to Governor Mifflin. He finished with 17 rushing touchdowns, scoring at least one in each game except two.
The Mustangs lose two strong parts of their defense in Aram Moffitt and Chris Weibe, who finished 1-2 in tackles at 67 and 65, respectively, and combined for 12 per game. South Western was using an inexperienced group on the line that improved as the season progressed.
At quarterback, the Mustangs graduate senior Mike Duffy, but junior Tyler Sterner returns after a strong season in part-time play. He finished 31-of-54 (57.4 percent) with four touchdowns against two interceptions. He also rushed for two touchdowns.
"When Duffy came out, there wasn't a drop-off to Tyler," Poalucci said. "He performed just like a starter should. Tyler's going to be excellent. We're going to put more stuff in. He's going to have more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage. I can't wait for him to do it next year."
The Mustangs only played two games decided by fewer than eight points: 28-21 and 19-17 victories against William Penn and Spring Grove, respectively. They beat Gettysburg and New Oxford handily but suffered blowout losses to Cedar Cliff and Central Dauphin.
Poalucci believes those latter two games against District 3 powers helped his team prepare for its goal going into next season.
"We told the kids we want to play the best," he said. "We have to prepare ourselves to get into districts. Central Dauphin, yeah, they scored a lot of points on us. But our kids learned we could play with them. We're not afraid of them.
"The goal was to get to districts. Now the goal has to be, 'That's where we need to be.' Districts aren't a destination. They're a starting point."
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