HUDSON — It didn’t take long for Chris Taylor to take a brand new football program at Fivay and turn it into a contender.
The former Ridgewood coach had experience building a winning program with the Rams. Under Taylor, Ridgewood reached the postseason in 2007 while producing star tailback Byronell Arline (more than 2,000 yards, 35 TDs in 2008).
“There are experiences that we had at Ridgewood that you can learn from,” Taylor said. “It’s not all about me though. My job is to lead these kids in the right direction.”
Taylor knew the uphill climb that was ahead of him starting the Fivay program from scratch. Playing a mixed varsity-JV schedule in its inaugural season, the Falcons won only one varsity contest with six losses. The Falcons notched a 25-21 comeback victory over Hudson, and for those who followed the game closely, the building blocks for a successful team were evident.
Four of the Falcons’ five best players came up big for the team that Friday night, including quarterback Tyler Degen, wide receiver James Bullock, and linebackers Brice Sesler and Jordan Wisner. After falling behind 14-0 early, Degen tossed three touchdowns, all to Bullock, and Fivay was in position for the eventual winning drive.
Degen was 14-of-17 passing for 268 yards in that game, still a career high. Bullock hauled in nine catches for 196 yards.
“The truth is that we knew we had some talent before we even had pads,” Taylor said. “We took our lumps last year, but the kids learned from that.”
Fast forward to 2011. Degen is still the field general as a junior with Bullock, a senior, his star receiver. But the running game, which was by committee the season before, got a boost from Hudson transfer Kyrie Rodriguez. The senior gives the team speed in the backfield and more balance.
Sesler has been dominant on defense. His 121 tackles, two fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles and four sacks all lead the team. Wisner is second with 90 tackles.
With a chance to put the team in prime position for an unlikely playoff berth, all of these players had their best games of the season in the battle for second place with Zephyrhills.
Down by two scores with just over five minutes remaining, the Falcons (7-3) went to work. Rodriguez pounded the ball in for a 9-yard touchdown, then following a successful onside kick, Degen hit Bullock in the end zone for a 29-yard score.
Degen had his only 200-yard passing game of the season, going 17-of-24 for 206 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception.
Rodriguez carried the ball for a career-high 35 times for 154 yards and three touchdowns. Bullock caught 15 passes for 169 yards and both passing TDs.
“I think the thing that really helps us is that we’re good friends off the field,” Bullock said after the crucial win. “Tyler and I are best friends, and Kyrie has become close to us, too.”
Sesler led a defensive attack that, while not stellar, did come up big when it mattered. The middle linebacker had 12 tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
Like they’ve been for most of the past two seasons, the Falcons find themselves in a familiar position Friday night, heavy underdogs to perennial powerhouse North Marion (8-2) in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
Many have tried and failed to halt the Colts’ opening-round win streak, which stands at six. In fact, North Marion has reached the playoffs each of the past 12 years, so experience won’t be an issue.
“We are going into the lion’s den,” Taylor said. I won’t sugar coat it for them. This game is about us taking steps as a program. If we don’t win, then so be it, but this has to be a valuable experience for us down the line.”