“Somebody go around and hold that door open!” A deep voice called out, from the back of a pack of slowly moving boys in Navy and Carolina blue jerseys.
Somebody did go around, open the door for the boys and slowly, everyone filled inside Central Valley High School, packing into the makeshift locker room setup in the auditorium. CV head coach Mark Lyons called the boys together, led the team victory prayer and told the boys to clean up after themselves before going to get changed.
After a 44-0 victory over Ambridge, the mood was high, but for a team stringing together its 20th consecutive victory, there was no hooting and hollering. There was no celebration, and according to Lyons, his team didn’t even know it was 20 straight.
“I couldn’t even tell you what that number was,” Lyons said. “I don’t think our guys even — we’ve never addressed it. I don’t think anyone’s even mentioned it. We live in the moment, we live day to day as far as during practice, making sure we’re better at practice, making sure we’re better then obviously in games.”
With the shutout over Ambridge, Central Valley improved to 8-0 so far this season, when combined with 2020’s 12-0 run to a PIAA Class 3-A title, makes it 20 in a row for the Warriors. The last loss came in the 2019 state title against Wyoming Area to complete a 14-2 season.
For seniors like Matt Merritt, Landon Alexander and Sean Fitzsimmons, it’s a 34-2 stretch of play with two state title appearances — and one to be determined.
However, it hasn’t always been easy for this senior class. A 5-6 freshman season for the group, capped by a 46-0 loss to Derry, was a major learning experience. Lyons pointed to Central Valley being able to sustain prolonged excellence to guys like Merritt and Alexander, who soaked up the knowledge necessary as underclassmen, acting as sponges to the upperclassmen, and now pass that knowledge onto the next generation.
Merritt, in particular, recognized the need for growth after his freshman season, and the years of grinding have finally led to this one last chance for him and his class, but also helped to pave the way for the future of the program.
“We’ve been winning since we were real young, brought in a lot of trophies when we were real young,” Merritt said. “And after our freshman year, when we had a rough year, we didn’t see much time, we knew we had to put in the grind for the off-seasons. As you can see, it’s really paid off and we just gotta continue to lead our team and get these young guys to keep developing.”
The young guys, or rather the guys who were once in Merritt and Alexander’s positions, have used games like Ambridge, Quaker Valley (a 44-0 win) and Keystone Oaks (a 69-7 win) to get some invaluable in-game experience this season. It worked for the Merritt and Alexander, so why stop now?
“We just had to find a groove early on [against Ambridge],” Merritt said. “That’s what we wanted to do since the start of the season; we wanted to get up early on teams and get the young guys in. I think that’s what helps our future, our organization, to get these young guys in on varsity nights.”
Alexander, who scored on touchdown runs of seven and 45 yards against Ambridge to continue an incredible senior season, was able to step back in the fourth quarter and let the younger players step in. He’s fully committed to winning — perhaps the hardest worker on a team full of workout warriors — and continuing to build for the future.
“We don’t want to lose,” Alexander said. “We don’t plan on losing for a long, long time. It goes back to what [Matt] said. We’ve been getting up early on teams, gets the younger guys better and more prepared for the future.”
However, while Central Valley is, of course, content with the winning — content with continuing to stretch a 20 game streak — over the last three seasons, Alexander isn’t really impressed with 20 games in a row — or any number for that matter. It’s all about getting better and better for the Warriors.
“We can’t really say it means too much, this is like, in the most uncocky way, it’s not new to us,” Alexander said. “We’ve been winning ever since we basically picked up footballs.”
It’s a continual grind for Central Valley, one that’s been constantly in motion since these seniors’ freshmen seasons, and even now as seniors on an 8-0 team, Merritt and Alexander continue to find areas to work hone in on, grind out in practice and perfect in games. It’s a double-edged sword in prepping the future of the program while still staying as sharp as possible in the present.
“Find our click [heading forward],” Merritt said. “I still think we still might have some things we gotta improve on, some little things. … We really haven’t played past the second half much, so we just gotta find that click, continue getting reps in practice and just keep getting better.”
Lyons has been around every step of the way for these seniors, helming Central Valley since 2010, and he’s not about to let a team lose focus — even if that team is already hyper-focused.
“Got to work Monday through Thursday,” Lyons said. “We try to make sure that period during the week is strenuous on them so obviously when you get to Fridays, they’re well prepared and there’s no shock to them, there’s no awe in that.”
And the veteran leadership on Lyons’ team isn’t content with becoming stagnant, even in winning, so you can bet practice will continue to be a highly-charged, highly-competitive affair moving forward. This streak has been built on the back of grinding in the offseason, in the weight room and on the practice field after all.
“I think we got the motto as every night we’re coming out 0-0,” Merritt said. “The wins we have don’t define us. Really each and every game we take seriously, no matter who we play, no matter if we know we have the win or we know we have a dog fight coming up, you take every game serious.”
Central Valley has two games remaining on the regular season slate, away against Avonworth next Friday and home against Hopewell in two weeks. Then? Another run at the state championship.