MOUNT UNION - Isn't it amazing what can happen in just 365 days?
In one lightning-fast year, fortunes and destinies can change.
It only took one year for the Mount Union football team to go from the outhouse to the penthouse and no one - not even the most ardent Trojan fan - could have prophesied the dramatic turnaround that happened so quickly.
At this time last year, Mount Union ended a dismal 2-8 campaign. Nothing went right. Coming into the 2013 season, the Trojans didn't register a blip on the radar of teams to watch out for. The pundits wrote them off before the season started.
The Trojans were supposed to be bad. Maybe two or three wins at best, four of five if you are a supreme optimist.
Well, someone forgot to send the memo to coach Dayton Shugarts and his staff.
Led by their 74-year-old coach and mentor - the fourth person to hold the job in as many seasons - Mount Union won and kept on winning, to the tune of a 9-1 record, an honorable mention slot by Pennsylvania Football News, and a second seed in the District 6 Class AA playoffs.
The Trojans begin the quest for a championship this Friday when they host Forest Hills in a quarterfinal contest at 7 p.m.
"This season has been beyond expectations," Shugarts said. "We expected to be decent. We were putting in a new offense, so we were a little apprehensive in the beginning that they would adapt to it. Our line was a problem at the start because the kids were not used to the zone-blocking concept.
"After the first two games, I thought the kids were starting to get it. It was really after the Moshannon Valley game that we started to develop chemistry and become a good football team. We were down early and came back and that gave us momentum that carried through the rest of the year. It's been a great run."
Forest Hills (6-4) will not be an easy mark. The Rangers are one of the traditional powers in Central Pennsylvania football. Even in down years Forest Hills can beat most District 6 teams, thanks to the leadership of legendary coach Don Bailey.
Bailey, inducted into the PSFCA Hall of Fame in 2010, sports a 339-96-8 record in 40 years of coaching Forest Hills football. He owns nine District 6 titles (one in AAA), 17 conference crowns, nine unbeaten regular seasons, and his 1994 squad made it to the PIAA finals, losing in double overtime to legendary Mount Carmel.
Make no mistake, the Rangers got game, but Shugarts believes his team is being overlooked.
"I think people, especially the media, because of their reputation, believe we are going to just lie down and get beat," Shugarts said. "I know they have a reputation. I know they have tradition and I know they are well coached, but they have to come here. They have to play on our field. We may not have a storied program, but what they do is year-to-year. It doesn't matter what they've done in the past. The only thing that matters is now. Home field advantage in the playoffs is big.
"Don't get me wrong. I respect Forest Hills. I respect what they have done and I respect Coach Bailey. I also think that they should respect us for what we've done."
Mount Union is consistent on both sides of the ball. The Trojans score at a 37.5 points per game clip, while surrendering only 14.4 points per game.
Offensively, junior quarterback Trevon Walker, senior running back Dylan Smith and junior wideout B.J. Loner lead Mount Union.
Walker has 1,217 yards passing with 19 touchdown throws on the season. In addition, he has rushed for 286 yards with five scores. Smith owns 767 yards on 121 carries with 14 TDs, while Loner has 17 catches for 463 yards and 10 touchdowns. On the ground, Loner has 408 yards with five more scores.
"The offense has been solid all year. We have really good skill position players and the line has developed into a solid unit," Shugarts said. "We just have to keep doing what we know we can do, execute the offense and not make mistakes. If we do that, we should be okay."
The Trojan defense relies heavily on pressure from their ends and seniors Devon Kylor and Brody Suter (76 tackles) combined have 12 sacks on the season. Linebacker Smith (106 tackles) and defensive tackle Phil Kyle (95 tackles, four sacks), along with Loner (five interceptions) at corner, are important cogs in the Mount Union defensive machine.
"The defense has really come along. We have developed great chemistry with that unit," Shugarts said. "The great thing about the defense is we can substitute there and not lose anything. Many of these kids will be back. We've had some problems in the secondary, but if our line can get a push up front, we should be alright."
The Rangers are the definition of a balanced offense, averaging 163 yards through the air and 162 on the ground. They average 24.5 points per game while allowing only 17.5.
Forest Hills lost quarterback Joe Donoughe to injury in the season finale against Philipsburg-Osceola. The junior is 102-of-205 for 1,413 yards with 10 touchdowns. He has 562 yards with 12 scores on the ground. The Rangers need him badly if they want to win this game.
If Donoughe can't go, Bailey will start senior Tyler Shima, who has 21 catches as a receiver, but only 122 yards passing. Hakeem Blough is their big all-purpose threat. The junior has 585 yards rushing and 464 yards on 29 receptions with nine total touchdowns. Blough is also a threat defensively with seven interceptions on the season.
"We have to hold their passing game in check. I don't think we can completely stop them. They score a lot of points," Shugarts said. They have a dual threat quarterback (Donoughe) that we have to look out for. We have to play our keys, do what we've done best all year and not make mistakes at the wrong time. We can't give up the big plays and when things don't go our way, we can't get down on ourselves."
No matter what happens, this has been a season to remember for the Trojans. A season they hope keeps going all the way to the district finals.
"The great thing is the town is starting to say we did this and we did that instead of they did that. It's been a long time since the area took the team into its heart like this," Shugarts said. "It hasn't all been easy but for the most part, it has been a lot of fun. I really feel comfortable and confident about what these kids can do. I love this whole experience. I'm really enjoying myself and the kids are too."