DANVILLE – In the village of Danville, the brightest lights in the night sky aren’t the stars overhead, but the steady blaze from stadium lamps.
Under the lights, a group of about three dozen people surround a pair of clipboards, studying the next play to execute.
The players walk to formation on a pockmarked field; the many divots and patches of grass tell stories of the autumn marathon of battles. In the crisp November air is the scent of mud mixed with sweat, with maybe a pinch of hope.
The football, its markings long since rubbed off from overuse, is snapped. The play is executed. A whistle blows.
On Friday, a year-long quest will come to an end, for better or worse, as the undefeated Danville Blue Devils (13-0) will attempt to atone for last year’s bitter defeat in the regional finals.
Kickoff against top-seeded Dalton (12-1) in the Division VII Regional championship game is set for 7 p.m. at Dover High School’s Crater Stadium.
“There’s a bond that we have on this team,” Danville senior Gavin Lepley said. “When you’re with the same group of guys every day since January until now, it’s hard not to have some sort of bond together.”
The second-seeded Blue Devils have been here before. Few schools can boast 10 regional championship game appearances in their history. But this year, the feeling is just a bit different.
The loss to Warren JFK, 22-21, in last season’s regional final has been on the minds of everyone on the team since that fateful night, when a two-point conversion decided everything.
It isn’t the way they wanted it to end. It wasn’t supposed to end.
“Losing by one, that kept us awake at night,” junior Aiden Burke said. “Coming back this year, it makes this the most important game of our lives.”
The Blue Devils haven’t lost since. They’ve won every game this year by an average of 32 points. In the past two weeks, they’ve faced two of the toughest defenses in the region in Springfield and Lowellville – and scored 73 points combined.
The biggest numbers on offense have been put up by Cole Delaughder, who now holds the single-season rushing record for Danville with 1,673 yards to go along with 28 touchdowns. Quarterback Walker Weckesser, who is responsible for 33 touchdowns.
But the real secret to Danville’s success has been the contributions of other players, such as Aidan Burke, Joshua Byers, Bryer Boeshart and Jacob Hackman. Combined, they’ve racked up nearly 1,000 yards on the ground and an additional 12 touchdowns.
Dalton has a pair of stars it relies on heavily as well.
Sammy Tomlinson rushed for over 700 yards in the regular season, scoring 14 touchdowns. But the focus of Danville’s defense will likely focus on Greyson Siders, who finished the regular season with 1,137 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Including catches, Siders is averaging just under 12 yards every time he touches the ball.
On defense, Siders is part of a linebacking corps that likes to put pressure on the quarterback. Siders recovered a fumble to clinch a victory over Norwayne and intercepted a pass to clinch a victory last week over St. Paul.
“We know we’re not going to be able to completely shut him [Siders] down. He’s going to make some plays,” Danville head coach Matt Blum said. “But, when he breaks one, we have to have the proper pursuit angles to bring him down and play the next play.
“This is a four-quarter battle. We have to play really hard on the next play.”
Dalton’s regional trophy case is as barren as Danville’s is rich. This is the Bulldogs’ fifth regional in seven years, and Friday will be their second regional final in three years. But they’ve never won a regional championship.
The Blue Devils hope to keep it that way.
“It’s not very often that you get redemption in something,” junior Caleb Lucas said. “I think we came back with unfinished business.”
“Ever since we stepped off that bus after the JFK game, everyone knew what we had to do,” Lepley said. “Everyone knew where we wanted to be.”
Back when workouts began nearly 10 months ago, Blum put up a list of goals for Danville to reach. Win the KMAC. Win the Devil-Dog game. Go 10-0. Win a playoff game. Win the regional title.
Check. Check. Check. Check. The last one will remain blank – at least until Friday.