The season's finest local high school football players, coach and team, as chosen by The Herald's sports staff
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published January 1, 2001
TEAM OF THE YEAR: Wilmington Greyhounds
The Greyhounds of Wilmington seemed more aptly described as the Underdogs heading into the 2000 football season -- especially in comparison to some of the 'Hounds Hammer era Wilmington teams of the recent past.
But underdog status played a major role in defining the character of
the team that so endeared itself to its fans and the county this season,
especially in its improbable District 10 Class AAA championship win over
favored Greenville and subsequent trek to the PIAA Western Region finals.
Because of the Greyhounds' determination and incredible success in 2000, Wilmington has been named The Herald Team of the Year, and along with that coach Terry Verrelli has been named Coach of the Year.
The year 2000 season began with just one certainty for Verrelli -- he would be looking at a virtually new and different team from the season previous, for better or worse. But the young group blossomed under their coach, like so many Wilmington teams have since he took the reins in 1978 when -- on the brink of the first season of the Verrelli era -- the 'Hounds' biggest concern was the fact that they were starting over, with precious little experience.
"You wonder how a team could possibly do any better," Verrelli said of his 12-2 2000 Greyhounds. "We had quite a few changes. It's a very tough thing, starting from scratch."
But that's exactly what Verrelli faced. His one and only building block was senior co-captain Mike Oestreich, who returned at linebacker on defense and moved to fullback on offense, where Verrelli said he was most needed to help open running lanes for junior speedster Brandon Whiting and senior co-captain Jonathan Hall. It paid off, as Oestreich led the team in tackles and helped Whiting to a 1,600-yard season, and Hall to better than 800 yards on the ground.
"If there was anything we built around, it was him," Verrelli said of Oestreich.
"At the beginning of the season, you have a job to do, to put people in slots and rebuild your team for a 10-game varsity season," he said. "And sometimes you start a new team and there are no guys to lead the way from the year before. With this group it was especially satisfying, because they moved up a class. To imagine winning the district and then going to the western finals with a new group ..."
Fellow senior captain Matt Coad stepped into the starting role at QB and also delivered.
The Wilmington Greyhounds defense, "The 'Hounds Hammer," was one of the key reasons for the young team's surprising success this season. Another one was veteran mentor Terry Verrelli. That success earned the squad and Verrelli honors as The HeraldŐs team and coach of the year, respectively. (Herald file photo)
"(Coad) really came out of nowhere," Verrelli said, adding that at the end of his junior season, Coad was not yet ready for varsity. By the start of this season, however, his relentless work earned him the job.
Verrelli also noted seniors Clint Buckwalter (G/T) and Chad Harper (TE/LB) as integral parts behind the team's success.
Wilmington, which is only seven boys above the Class A limit, immediately made the most of its small nucleus, the young team around it steadily caught on, and the Greyhounds steamrolled their first five opponents by scoring no less than 40 points each time while allowing a total of 33 points.
The first scare of the season came in week No. 6 when the Greyhounds faced unknown, yet strong (just ask Sharon) Karns City and escaped with an improbable 3-0 win. But according to Verrelli, it was just another example of his team finding ways to win.
"I think this season ended up being exactly like some of our past successful seasons," he said. "Defense still wins championships and we concentrate on that. But you've still got to move the ball.
"For the most part we scored quickly, and then it became much easier. But against Karns City, we won 3-0 and the defense played terrible. Otherwise we scored 45 points a game."
That trend picked back up the next week when Wilmington thumped Brookville, 42-6, setting up what Verrelli tagged as the game of the year. Ironically, it would be the lone Greyhounds' loss of the regular season.
Wilmington, like six teams before, would face an uphill climb against the state's top-ranked Class AA Sharon Tigers. Despite turning in a performance that Verrelli characterized as the turning point of the season for his team, Wilmington, too, bowed to the mighty Tigers, 16-0.
"I knew we weren't that good yet, but we played well the whole time," Verrelli said of the Sharon game. "We were on their heels the whole time. They had one long run, but other than that, we played great. We didn't have the big play in us, but we knew then we had a good team."
Bloodied but not broken, the 'Hounds finished out the regular season with a 42-0 pasting of Reynolds and an 8-1 record. What would follow would be a string of playoff victories that would rival many of the feats of some of Verrelli's finest teams.
A 42-7 thrashing of Titusville in the District 10-AAA opener set up a rematch with a very familiar rival, and the one that had, by some accounts, dominated the Greyhounds in a preseason scrimmage. Verrelli said the Greenville Trojans had loomed large to his players ever since.
"After the scrimmage, some of the kids were talking about Greenville being so huge and strong and skilled," said Verrelli, whose memorable season also earned him an assistant coach's spot on this year's Big 33 team.
But Wilmington managed the improbable again, riding first-half touchdowns from Whiting and Coad to a 16-7 win in what Verrelli admitted was among the sweetest of his career.
"The things we prepared at the beginning of the season worked out," he said. "We were never an overwhelming team on either side of the ball. Greenville was a tough team, but we moved the ball enough to beat them."
Amazingly, the momentum would not relent, and the next team to be overcome by the Greyhounds was the ultra-athletic and undefeated Perry Commodores, fresh from being crowned Pittsburgh City League champions. Again, the win came in the most unlikely of circumstances.
"No one was picking us to beat Perry," Verrelli said. "Talk about skill and talent, and talk about a team defying odds! People asked me before the game what I thought, and I told them that no matter what, we couldn't get into a shootout with them and survive -- but that happened and we won."
The Greyhounds eliminated Perry in a 37-25 thriller.
With loads of confidence, the 'Hounds found themselves outmatching Bradford next, barely breaking a sweat in a 35-0 PIAA quarterfinal rout. And although there would be no stopping West Allegheny the following week in a 37-7 loss, the 2000 Greyhounds wrote a very important chapter into Wilmington football history. Moreover, they maintained tradition.
"I think that's how this team accomplished what it did -- tradition," Verrelli said. "They know they can do it because they've seen it happen here before. We've been in this league (Mercer County Athletic Conference) seven years and been to the district title game every year."
Verrelli knows that this year sets up a promising next year, especially knowing that he'll only have five or six -- not 11 -- vital holes to fill. But like every season, he will face the loss of the previously mentioned senior leaders that helped shape this very special group.
"This team was an example of teamwork," he said. "There was also a lot of luck involved. We didn't have an injury all year. The lineup I drew up the first day was pretty much the one I finished the season with.
"We lived together and we got very close," he said. "Four months of my life are spent in this room and with these guys. Sometimes I don't know where my life goes. Sometimes we don't get done until 7:30 at night, and some kids will still come back to the room and talk for another hour. You live with them and their problems. It's so much more than football."
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