Southern Columbia football history about community, then wins
Fifty years ago, Southern Columbia football barely existed.
But the ripple made by a few men with a desire to see a football program instituted at their school has created a wave of success none of them could have foreseen.
Incidentally, the start of Southern Columbia's football program wasn't about building a powerhouse that would bring home six state championships.
That was just a plus.
Tiger football began with one goal in mind - building community spirit.
By that, or any other, measure, Southern Columbia has accomplished more in its 50 years of varsity football than arguably any other school during that span.
Charlie Nesbitt was the athletic director when the schools in Ralpho Township, Catawissa and Roaring Creek Valley joined. At the time, Nesbitt coached soccer at Catawissa; however, scheduling soccer games was problematic because not many local schools played soccer as football in the fall.
Beyond the difficult logistics of consistently traveling for soccer games in the Wilkes-Barre area, football had a place near and dear to Nesbitt's heart.
"I grew up in a football hotbed in the Wyoming Valley," Nesbitt said. "Down here, our surrounding communities all had football and I thought football did more to develop school spirit and we had a lot of football lovers in the area who didn't have a high school team to identify with."
To compare, neighboring schools had accumulated a bevy of Eastern Conference titles before Southern came into existence.
Mount Carmel had won the Eastern Conference in 1927 and 1954; Ashland in 1935; Kulpmont in 1938; and Coal Township in 1950 and '55.
"I thought football would be the natural fall sport to get into," Nesbitt said.
Working with Roy Sanders and Dave Dyer, among others, Nesbitt convinced the then 35-person school board to give football a chance, although not without some haggling. Starting football also meant the death of soccer, which had been a highly successful program in its own right.
"There were reservations because of the of the expense involved," Nesbitt said. "They decided it would be logical to start a football program.
"It was an opportunity for the band to play, for cheerleaders and a chance to get more spirit in the school. I coached soccer and soccer has its place, but it just doesn't generate the same kind of excitement. With football, it seems like spirit just prevails within the community."
Prospective players had already been playing for midget teams in Catawissa and Ralpho Township.
A popular myth with Tiger faithful recounts Nesbitt and company going door-to-door to drum up kids to put shoulder pads and a helmet on, but Nesbitt doesn't remember having to do so.
The players were all already willing, part of the reason for the push for football.
"While our numbers weren't that great, it's tough to field a competitive team, but our kids had played midget football before and I didn't go around to houses," Nesbitt said.
By the summer of 1962 a team had been assembled and a piece of ground where the bus barn is now had been put aside to serve as a field. The young Tigers just needed a head coach.
In stepped Pat Mondock. He'd grown up in central Pennsylvania and after going to college, returned to that area and took an assistant coaching job.
But Mondock considered himself a head coach in waiting and at 25 took the Southern Columbia job.
The Tigers played a junior varsity schedule that first year as players learned the fundamentals and playbook.
"It was a real grass roots thing," Mondock said. "From fundamentals to technique, we had to teach everything. Some kids had midget-league football experience, and that was it.
"But our kids were willing to learn. When we played our first games, the kids played hard. We didn't lack effort, and we were able to play and not embarrass ourselves."
The Tigers went 1-6-1 in that JV season.
Bill Hoffner was the manager in '63 after suffering a broken collarbone and played his senior year in '64, then coached with Frank Miriello in the '70s.
He remembered willing teammates, shenanigans on the bus and cold Saturday games.
"After you get the fundamentals it's not difficult to pick up blocking and tackling," Hoffner said. "Coach Mondock was very good at teaching us that and Roy Sanders had played for Coal Township and certainly knew what he was doing."
The Tigers' first varsity win came in the second week of the first season against Northwest on Saturday, Sept. 14, 1963. Southern beat the Rangers 13-6.
Rocky soil is tough to grow in. There is a special kind of perseverance needed to succeed, to sink roots and still grow tall and strong.
The field the Tigers were given, and shared with field hockey and physical education classes, was not the piece of prime real estate flanked by picturesque cornstalks and overlooked by a two-tier pressbox and solid metal bleachers that's in place now.
Among the forefront of memories for any alum of those early Tigers' teams is the field, and not for altogether positive reasons.
Ted Yeager, who played four years for the Tigers and went on to Wilkes College where he became an All-American, was in eighth grade for the first varsity season in 1963, which Southern finished 4-4-1.
"My most vivid memories are of the field itself," Yeager said. "We didn't have the nice stadium like they have now. In 1964 and '65 we played our games where the buses park now above the visitors' bleachers, and it was a rock pit. The boosters would have rock-picking parties."
With the current field location under construction, the Tigers didn't have a home game in either 1966 or '67 and played at either Bloomsburg High School or at the Catawissa Redskins' field.
The Tigers did play scrimmages at the field during those two years, but before each game players had to stand shoulder to shoulder and walk the width of the field while filling their helmets with rocks.
But the Tigers' boosters came out in full force and were resourceful in getting the necessary supplies to build a pressbox and put poles and rope around the field.
Other problems, like turnout, plagued the Tigers after those first years. Yeager said that on some occasions freshmen played in the freshmen game on Monday nights, then played junior varsity games and before the night was over took part in a scrimmage against the varsity squad.
Southern Columbia finished the 1960s with a 31-33-3 record, but did win the Susquehanna Valley League Class B championship in 1966 and posted its first win over rival Bloomsburg that year.
Part of the Tigers' problems finding success early on was because of the schedule.
Using today's classifications, the Tigers played five Class AAA teams in 1965. Schedule regulars were Selinsgrove, Shikellamy, Milton and Danville. Against those four teams, Southern went 6-10-1 in the first seven years.
"There were no leagues that accommodated a small school like us so we had games against Shamokin and Shikellamy," Nesbitt said. "We took our lumps and we were well known for our losing streak."
The 1970s were the dark days of Southern Columbia football.
The Tigers won just 27 games from 1970-79, but did have their first all-state player - Dennis Haladay - an honorable mention on the 1973 team.
The coaching carousel couldn't spin fast enough with eight different coaches getting a crack at leading the Tigers from 1963 to 1983, and four separate coaches had control in the '70s.
More than anything, numbers were against the Tigers in those years.
Southern's best single season during the decade was 5-4-1 in 1974. The year before, the Tigers finished with 19 players dressed for their last game.
"We were just trying to compete," said Dave Stellfox, who played from 1971 to '73. "We were competitive for the first half of games, but we got tired."
Stellfox recalled playing every second of every down of every game.
The Tigers' numbers in those years also ran into the beginning of the Columbia-Montour Vo Tech school, which sucked kids away from Southern and the graduating class size at Southern was just 84 in 1974.
Add to that future collegiate All-Americans like Randy Sidler at Danville High and Selinsgrove's Marlin Van Horn, who was an All-ACC player at Maryland, and the Tigers were simply overmatched. Forget playing Mount Carmel Area, which won the Eastern Conference in back-to-back years in 1972 and '73 in those days, the big game was an annual tilt with Lourdes.
The Tigers finished the decade with 12 straight losses that included an 0-11 under Mike Yeager.
"During the losing years there was some brief discussion about dropping football," Nesbitt said. "The football loyalists never wavered, but some people begrudged the money spent building the field and buying equipment."
Just like in 1979, Southern Columbia finished 0-10 in 1980 and the losing streak climbed to 22 games.
Southern also lost the first four games in 1981 and was facing a week without a day off for the Bloomsburg Fair, but things were about to turn around for the Tigers' faithful.
Future all-state players Jay Drumheller, John Fulmer, Billy Freeman, Edwin Jankowski and Matt Crowl were all sophomores. An assistant coach named Jim Roth was getting players to buy into a weight-lifting program and Hughesville was on the schedule.
This game does go down in Southern lore.
It was a dark and stormy Thursday night...
Sept. 25, 1981, will live on as the moment Southern's fortunes turned.
Drumheller scored the team's first touchdown of the year, and after rain and lightning delayed the start of the game, Southern won 21-0.
"I don't expect it to end here," then-Southern Columbia head coach Andy Ulicny said after the game. "There will be more and the players know they are capable of winning."
Looking back, Ulicny sees that single game as a monumental moment in the program's history.
"Breaking the losing streak was pretty big," Ulicny said when contacted for this story. "It was really a turning point in the program and since then there's been a night and day difference. That win is a landmark."
To celebrate, the district got the day off.
Every man contacted who was a part of that team and the one in 1983 that went 12-1 and won the first Eastern Conference championship in school history said one word about the change at Southern.
"It had been a losing tradition, but it was about overcoming a losing attitude," Ulicny said.
Starting in 1980 and leaving after that 1983 season, Ulicny was the first coach since Joe Sarra left in 1969 to finish his run with the Tigers with a record over .500.
The difference was in no small part to the level of players and what they wanted for themselves while playing high school football and losing wasn't it.
"Jay and some of those guys had played as freshmen and sophomores and realized the experience they were getting was special and we had a good group of kids," Ulicny said. "Jim was a young coach at the time, and they all had a hunger. They realized that with the schedule they were playing there was no reason they couldn't be winners."
The Tigers' only loss in '83 was to Bloomsburg by a touchdown. The schedule in '82 and '83 were kinder as well. Gone were the Class AAA-type schools and replaced by Jim Thorpe, Northwest, Hughesville and Freeland.
In 1983, the Tigers piled up four-straight and seven overall shutouts in 13 games.
"It's attitude," said Drumheller, now the head coach at Muncy, and whose 1,965 rushing yards in 1983 still ranks fifth all-time in Southern's history. "At some point, one class wants to out-do the other class. If you're a sophomore you want to do better than the juniors.
"We got in the weight room. I'm sure if I go down there now, the stuff we did is a tradition. It's been 30 years and we might see the stuff we started continued. They have a whole offense on scout team down there, and they're busting tail. When I played, if you could make the starting defense get yelled at or look bad, that was great."
The 50th anniversary just happens to coincide with the 30th anniversary of that 1983 team. The dedication of that team and how it continued after them meant the difference between being a one-year wonder and a winning program.
"It's the age-old question, what comes first, wins or an attitude change? It takes both," Roth said recently. "That's the process we went through in the four years I was an assistant. It was a matter of convincing them and motivating them to stay committed and that it was important."
The turnaround was apparent to people in the football world immediately outside Southern.
"I think when the program started to turn around, I was coaching at Danville," Ted Yeager said. "It seemed like they got a group of kids who were young and didn't want to lose so they hit the weight room really hard. They've continued with that and they have their summer speed program."
These two statements go hand-in-hand.
Jim Roth took over as head coach of the Tigers in 1984.
Southern Columbia has not had a losing season since.
Since Roth's first win against Jim Thorpe in '84, Southern Columbia has won a total of 347 games. In that same span, Mount Carmel Area has won 264 games and Shamokin Area has won 176.
It's fair to when talking about Southern Columbia's success to mention the outward migration of families from Shamokin and Mount Carmel.
It's undeniable that as the Tigers' fame grew it was due to the base of players there infused with talented players whose parents moved out of Mount Carmel and Shamokin school districts.
That influx is not lost on people associated with Southern's program.
"It's a perfect storm down there because just like real estate, it's about location," Drumheller said. "We had Bill Freeman move in from Shamokin. We had a couple kids from Mount Carmel. Even then, a couple pieces came in from all over. Southern is a nice place to live, a great place to grow up. As much as Jim Roth does a nice job and they have a great staff, it's location. We benefited from that and the bottom line is that my class said enough is enough."
From 1984 on, every record in the Tigers' record book has been set and reset.
Starting with Roth's first year, the running game has been the emphasis of the Tigers' offense.
To illustrate that point, look no further than Roth's first premier runner - Jerry Marks.
In four years, Marks, father of current Tigers' running back Blake, gained 7,075 yards and scored 93 touchdowns.
Those marks stood as the standart in Class A until 1997 when Fort Cherry's Mike Vernillo broke it.
The Tigers won 57 games in the '80s and won the 1988 Eastern Conference title.
That year, Berwick won it's first state title in Class AAA and over the next nine years won five more, a mark thought to be unmatchable
Most area football historians agree that 1994 was the greatest year of the state-title era.
Berwick won its third title. Mount Carmel Area, in Class AA, won its first and Southern Columbia managed to get to Altoona for the championship game, and did win.
The Tigers appearance in the Class A game ended three years of frustration for a program on the verge of being special.
In 1992, the Tigers lost to eventual state champ Scotland, and in'93 a loss to South Williamsport and the decision to go the Eastern Conference route through the state playoffs cost the Tigers a chance to advance.
But in 1994, Southern realized its potential, beating Western Beaver, 49-6, and getting rid of the monkey from their backs.
Butch Romanoski rushed for 1,794 yards that season and was named first-team All-State.
The culmination of that season and the support the Tigers received from their fans is what stands out almost 20 years later to Romanoski.
"For me, because we made it to the state semifinals my freshman and sophomore years, making it to the actual championship game and all the support we got from the community sticks out in my mind," Romanoski said.
An interesting thing happened to Southern Columbia on the way to Altoona the next two years - the bigger Southern Columbia's program grew, the bigger the doubts the Tigers could repeat that success in 1994.
The Tigers made it back to the state title game in 1995, '96, '98, '99, 2000 and 2001, and came away empty each time.
The margin of each of those losses was less than 10 points.
Gone were the "soft" schedules people had accused the Tigers of playing in the regular season. But mirroring the Tigers' success in the east was a physical Rochester team in the west.
The Rams won the first three meetings between the two teams ('98, 2000 and '01).
Southern got its revenge on Rochester in 2002 and 2004, and the Tigers ran off a state-record five championships in a row. The average margin of victory in those five games was 32.4 points.
Sandwiched in the middle of that run is a July day that is etched on the heart of every Tiger.
On July 28, 2004, Southern Columbia teammates Eric Barnes and Tarik Leghlid died in a swimming accident in Bloomsburg.
Their deaths gave pause to every member of that team, and many thoughts still go to them when the 2004 season is brought up.
Quarterback Danny Latorre was a senior leader on that team, and while the expectation of a championship run was firmly engrained in Southern's fanbase, the overwhelming sense of community overpowered the pressure to continue the title streak and helped with the grief of their bigger loss.
To show their support, the coaching staff started each game with just nine men on defense, to honor their two lost starters.
That gesture stands out most to Latorre.
"My senior year with my teammates after the incident and having nine men start on defense, and for that to continue through the season meant a lot," Latorre said.
Southern's last title came in 2006 when the most famous Southern alum, Henry Hynoski, demolished West Middlesex in the state championship game, 56-14.
Hynoski, like Jerry Marks before him, held the state Class A career rushing mark with a total of 7,165 yards and is the first, and one of just three, running back in Pennsylvania history to score more than 100 touchdowns in his career with 113.
The Tigers' incredible streak of 16 consecutive District 4 titles came to an end in 2007, but Southern has reclaimed the title each year after that and went back to the state title game in 2011, their 13th such appearance.
Overall, 70 different players have made the all-state team 84 times, including four players who made the squad three different times - Jerry Marks (1984-86), Mark Scisly (1994-96), Josh Marks and Henry Hynoski (both 2004-06).
Three other players have been player of the year - Ricco Rosini (1997), Latorre (2004) and Hynoski (2006).
Countless others have gone on to play college football, and even more wear the black and gold proudly to this day.
Which brings us back to the start of Tiger football - its hopeful influence on the surrounding community.
In reality, it's been a two-way street. The support from the community feeds the players' desire to do better, a phenomenon not lost on Roth.
"Attitude comes from parents and community," he said. "You don't have 70-percent of your students involved in after-school activities if you don't have support from parents and the community. It's why our district has fewer problems. It's a key ingredient once the kids are involved, because if you didn't have the following it wouldn't be as desirable for kids to be involved."
To get to that point a change needed to occur, not just in the outcomes of football games, but going back to the original mission of a dance party Dyer and the faculty hosted at the time of the jointure with the theme, "Let's get together," based on an Annette Funicello song from the early '60s.
"There was a turn in Tiger pride," Ulicny said about the early 1980s. "We went from where the girls wore the sports jackets and the boys wouldn't wear them in public. But we started selling generic bumper stickers that just said, 'Tiger pride.' Then things changed with football and we had winners in wrestling and it was a domino effect."
Continuity and community have a lot of the same letters, mean at their cores the same ideas - wholeness of ideas.
Nothing shows that better than the number of current assistant coaches that have either been there for 30 years or are former players who are on the staff now.
Andy Mills and Al Cihocki have been with Roth since the beginning. John Marks, Mike Johnston and Rick Steele have all been around for at least 17 years. It's no mistake Southern has maintained a consistently high standard of play on the field. But it takes so much more than game-day coaching to sustain success.
"Our staff has been in place for decades," Roth said. They maintain their commitment and work ethic.
"It's easy with our success to become complacent, but that never happened. Our coaches never take it for granted."
Community can be measured in pride. Pride can be seen in the number of lawn signs when driving through the countless country roads that crisscross Tiger country. Pride is the number of alumni who, years after graduating and leaving the area, still go to playoff games and come back for special celebrations.
One such special moment was the celebration of Roth's 300th win. It was because of that moment, which every player felt like they could share in, came an almost singular source of a definition of pride - the SCA Football Alumni group. The group is dedicating to keeping far-flung alumni from all eras up to date on everything Tigers. They send out digital and print newsletters and raise money for the program.
"The group is an acknowledgement of how important the program is to former players," said Judy Lynn Weaver, the group's secretary. "This program is something special and we wanted to keep people posted and keep people involved."
Among the group's goals is raising enough money for new ticket booth and miniature Tiger Hall of Fame, and possibly an alumni plaza, but that is dwarfed by the plan of starting a mentoring program so current players are able to contact former players regarding college and career options.
Who knew football could mean so much more than wins and losses to a school district?
Some very wise men 50 years ago.