MOUNT CARMEL - When things were at their worst, when Mount Carmel dropped three straight games, Red Tornadoes coach Carmen DeFrancesco kept saying that they would be in the thick of the District 4 AA tournament come playoff time.

Sure enough, here they are.

Mount Carmel (8-4) will play top-seeded Danville (10-2) tonight at Danville in hopes of winning a second straight district title. At the start of the season, many people thought the Red Tornadoes were odds-on favorites to repeat, but their three-game stumble and troubles with the defense had them scrambling for the seventh seed in the eight-team field.

Yet here they are.

"I always felt from the beginning of the season that we'd be here, and the kids felt that way too," DeFrancesco said earlier this week. "We hit some bumps in the road but that's how life is. Things don't always work out the way you expect them to but you've just got to keep going."

DeFrancesco cited a couple reasons for the Red Tornadoes' late surge.

"This is the healthiest we've been since Mike Scicchitano went out in the first quarter of the first game," he said. "And the other thing is we're not turning the ball over. You can't do that when you're in the playoffs. That's been the key to our success. We probably wouldn't have lost three of the four games we did if we would have held on to the ball."

Keeping possession will be important against the Ironmen, who are plus-15 for the season in takeaways. Their struggles in their 14-13 semifinal win over Athens came about because they uncharacteristically turned the ball over.

"They're a very well-coached team," DeFrancesco said. "They have athletes on both sides of the ball. They're quick defensively. Their five linebackers really run to the ball. I can see why they've gone to that 3-5 defense."

Defense has been Danville's strong point. The Ironmen have intercepted 20 passes. Cale Rice leading the team with seven, with Zachary Kozick and Bret Berg having five and four, respectively.

Eric Haney is the tackling leader with 118, and all of the Ironmen defenders, particularly the linebackers, swarm the ball.

"They don't make a lot of mistakes," DeFrancesco said.

Offensively, the Ironmen are balanced but try to control the ball as much as they can. Power running fullback Sam Dressler, whose father Jim played on Shamokin's 1975 Eastern Conference championship team, has run for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. Isaiah Croll adds 589 yards and four TDs.

"They're like Southern a little," DeFrancesco said. "They take on the tackler and then explode into him. If you don't wrap him up, Dressler will run right through you."

Quarterback Weston Baylor is a first-year starter but has been successful, throwing for 1,182 yards and 15 touchdowns. Berg has 31 receptions for 431 yards and six touchdowns, and Kuzick 21 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns.

"They're the number one seed for a reason," DeFrancesco said.