Old Forge baseball coach Tony DiMattia, no stranger to long playoff runs, got an outside opinion that put what the Blue Devils’ run to the PIAA Class A football final at Hershey Park Stadium meant into perspective.
“I went to the restroom, and met a guy from Middletown, which is about 10 miles away from Hershey,” DiMattia said. “He said he’s been coming to the state championships for years, and said he’s never seen so many people from one town on one side of the field. He usually can pick his own seat, but he couldn’t pick as good of a seat this year.
“That’s a credit to our fans.”
The community rallied behind its high school team, just like it did in 1992 when the Blue Devils captured a state baseball championship. DiMattia, who was a crucial part of that state title team, said the town received a much-needed boost and a captivating football team loaded with personable, well-mannered stars fit the bill.
“It was very important to bring the community together. It’s been constantly bad publicity (lately),” said DiMattia, who guided the Blue Devils baseball team to the state semifinals in June. “What you see on TV, whether it be the police or the teachers’ strike, just one thing after another, people look for anything like this to bring the community together.”
But all the negativity has been pushed aside for a few weeks as a bunch of high school football players and their coaches has been center stage for a long, successful season. Even though the team just missed out on its ultimate goal with a 15-14 loss to North Catholic in a hard-fought, riveting final, the journey to Chocolatetown was filled with a sweetness that will long be remembered to those on the overflowing bandwagon.
While the games are over, celebration of the Blue Devils’ achievement will continue for a bit, which will give the highly-regarded players an opportunity to enjoy their accomplishment. They will be treated like rock stars, reaching across generations by signing autographs and shaking hands with a wide variety of fans eager to thank them for the positive spirit they have generated.
“Basically, we’ve hit all demographics of the town,” head football coach Mike Schuback said. “Going to the Eagle McClure Hose Company (Sunday), they got to see some residents who couldn’t make the game.
“It’s been a great ride.”
It has been a great ride for everyone, and the players themselves will enjoy their time in the spotlight, starting with their return trip to their home field after the game last Friday, repeating what they did the week before that after beating Steelton-Highspire in a state semifinal.
There is nothing like football when it comes to creating an identity for a community, something even a career baseball guy like DiMattia cannot deny. All the lights and the singular Friday night games, signaling the end of a long work week, forge a spectacle that only grows the longer a successful season goes on.
“Our area is a football area,” DiMattia said. “Our school supports every sport, but football has more kids, more numbers. It’s no slight, kind of just the way it is, you don’t pull out 1500 for baseball, let alone 2,000.”
Those are the types of numbers the Blue Devils began to attract for the playoffs, picking up steam with a revenge game against Dunmore for the District 2 Class A title. Old Forge sweetly delivered a 27-7 victory over the Bucks to avenge a regular-season defeat and a loss in last year’s district final.
Old Forge’s 13th game of the season, against District 4 champion Southern Columbia, bolstered the sense of community pride with the way the team rallied after falling behind, 14-0, early in the first-round state game. Lesser teams might have folded against the perennially strong Tigers, who have been to the state title game over a dozen times, but not these Blue Devils.
Old Forge rallied for a 19-14 victory that stamped them as a team with heart and poise, characteristics that a community can be proud of backing.
“I go back to the Southern Columbia game, down 14-0 against a team that’s always in the hunt for a state title,” DiMattia said. “Win that game, and it stays in the minds of the community and the players. Once we got past Southern, we knew anything could happen.”
Wins over Schuylkill Haven and Steelton-Highspire drew more fans to the bandwagon, eager to see what this collection of high school kids could do.
“I saw people at the state title game that I haven’t seen at a game in 20 years,” DiMattia said.
The last four teams the Blue Devils defeated were programs that have a strong pedigree, boasting many past state champions and runner-up teams sprinkled among them. Old Forge, with its rich history of powerful teams under coach Elio Ghigiarelli, was ready to join them with its first state title game appearance.
And a town rejoiced.
“It’s incredible,” DiMattia said. “It’s rejuvenated our community.”
It goes both ways. A community that will be very appreciative of what the football team has done for them, and the players, just happy to bring smiles and joy to their town.