GREENFORD-As they stood on the field late Friday night, soaking in their 49-35 win over Crestview, the South Range football team hoped the victory signified not only an early advantage in the conference race, but also the return to a level of dominance the program has not seen for the past five years.
"We know what South Range football has been about," senior offensive lineman Ryan Haynes said. "We've wanted to regain the ITCL title for the past four or five years and we've worked hard to try and bring the title back to South Range where it belongs. We knew we had to come out and beat Crestview to have a chance."
Even the most rock-solid of high school football programs aren't immune from the occasional down cycle. For most of head coach Dan Yeagley's 19 seasons, the Raiders have been the picture of consistency, reeling off 11 state playoff appearances and eight conference titles from 1995-2008. They had three straight undefeated regular seasons from 2005-2007.
However, a loss to Crestview in 2008 signaled a changing of the guard in the Inter-Tri County League upper tier. South Range ceded the league title to the Rebels that season, then saw their winning ways end abruptly in 2009 when they tumbled to a 2-8 record. Though the Raiders fielded respectable squads for the next three years, they operated a rung below their accustomed level, missing the playoffs twice while watching Crestview ascend to the mantle of ITCL alpha-dog.
"When you are dealing with high school kids, things always go in cycles," Yeagley said. "We were very blessed for a long time to have great kids, but when you're at a small school anything can happen in any given year and we ran into a stretch where we went down and Crestview was up. Now we think we have a team that can compete at that level again."
The backbone of this Raider team is formed by 15 seniors, including five linemen. Yeagley could see something special brewing with the group last year when they overcame an 0-2 start to finish 7-3, their only conference loss coming at the hands of Crestview.
"Last year was a great experience for these guys," Yeagley said. "To regroup after that start and have a chance to win the league title against Crestview was huge. We knew we would have to play perfect to beat them and we didn't, but it helped set the tone for this year."
Things really kicked into high gear for the Raiders during their winter conditioning program, when the seniors took their commitment to another level.
"Ever since I was a freshman, everybody kind of bossed each other around," senior lineman Garrett Sorley said. "But this year we really have a connection to everybody on the team. Everyone knows what everybody else is doing and what their responsibilities are. We were really determined to go out strong this year."
"The senior leadership was unbelievable over the winter," Yeagley said. "They aren't a group that likes to scream and holler, but likes to lead by example. They came in every day and treated their preparation like an actual job, always making sure the little things were done right, always lifting everybody else up. That has been absolutely crucial to our season."
That cohesion was on display when the Raiders needed to travel 80 yards with the clock winding down to beat Warren JFK in the season opener, and again in their third game when they rallied from a double-digit halftime deficit to beat Garfield Heights Trinity.
"All of a sudden you saw them fully grow together as a team," Yeagley said. "All the work over the winter paid off not just physically but also mentally. It was really special to watch that change occur and for us to be a fully cohesive unit."
"It was a relief to pull those games out and then beat Crestview," Haynes said. "It showed everyone that we are capable of going 10-0 and that we can beat playoff-type teams again."
Yeagley isn't counting the Raiders as all the way back just yet, not with more than half the season left to play, but conceded that beating Crestview altered the conversation surrounding his team.
"That's the crazy thing," Yeagley said. "It's only week five, anything can happen going forward. However, when you beat a good team like Crestview it elevates you a notch, just like when they beat us in 2008. To be the best you have to beat the best, We knew that to even be talked about as a serious contender we had to beat Crestview. They've owned the league for the last