The Champs at 20

Two decades later, mem­o­ries of ’96 Down­ing­town’s ti­tle team carry on

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Nate Heck­en­berger For Dig­i­tal First Me­dia @nheck­en­berger on Twit­ter

By the time Down­ing­town ar­rived on the snow-framed field at Man­sion Park in Al­toona, the 1996 PIAA Cham­pi­onship was more of a cul­mi­na­tion than a con­test.

Those Whip­pets had been through so much, start­ing with a heart­break­ing loss in the 1994 state fi­nal, to a re­build­ing year in ’95 and a hum­bling loss to Al­len­town Cen­tral Catholic in the ’96 sea­son opener.

A 49-14 win that De­cem­ber day against Wood­land Hills was the ex­act mo­ment the Whip­pets talked about af­ter the ’94 loss and the pin­na­cle of a sea­son still be­ing revered to­day, 20 years later.

“The ’94 team es­tab­lished a work ethic and a be­lief in them­selves that they could play at the high­est level,” said Down­ing­town coach John Barr. “We said that day in the locker room that we were go­ing to get back and we were go­ing to win it. The kids who were on that team main­tained that men­tal­ity and when we lost that first game (in ’96) it was a huge wakeup call be­cause any loss from there and we were done. We came to­gether and weren’t go­ing to lose again and we weren’t even close to los­ing again.”

Barr’s Whip­pets were as dom­i­nant a team as the Ch­esMont has ever known, and still the league’s only state champ. Dur­ing this Fri­day’s sea­son fi­nale show­down be­tween Down­ing­town East and Down­ing­town West, the team will be hon­ored and Barr will be the EastWest hon­oree by the Down­ing­town High School Alumni As­so­ci­a­tion.

“It feels like just yes­ter­day and even now, 20 years later, it’s such an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence that is so of­ten on my mind and on the play­ers’ minds,” Barr said.

It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence un­doubtably seared in the minds of the fans and the com­mu­nity, as well. The Whip­pets scored a re­mark­able 671 points in 15 games (41 more than the 2012 Coatesville team did in 16 games) and did so with an of­fense well ahead of its time.

“Coach Barr got us to buy in to be a team,” said star run­ning back Arlen Har­ris. “We tried to be a team that bul­lied folks around and build a pro­gram that didn’t have to restart ev­ery year. Right away guys bought in and had a lot of pride in the tra­di­tion.”

Dan El­lis, the AP Player of the Year in Penn­syl­va­nia that sea­son, was a dual-threat quar­ter­back who was given the keys by Barr, lit­er­ally, as he called nearly ev­ery play at the line of scrim­mage. In the same back­field was fu­ture NFL-er Har­ris, who ran for over 2,000 yards as a ju­nior in 1996.

“Hav­ing been in the sit­u­a­tion of call­ing all the plays, when all else failed I could just hand the ball off to one of the best run­ning backs in the state,” said El­lis, who is now the head coach at Great Val­ley. “We had five guys with 35 catches or so and we were very cut­ting edge, of­fen­sively. We were do­ing things no one else was do­ing.”

Barr and El­lis learned the of­fense from Bill Hart, the of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Blooms­burg Univer­sity at the time. It took El­lis a year to mas­ter it in 1995, when Down­ing­town went 8-3 and missed the play­offs, but by the start of his se­nior sea­son, he was like a high school ver­sion of Pey­ton Man­ning, with wheels.

“He was so pro­fi­cient, even if a play back­fired,” Barr said. “I knew what­ever he saw, there was an op­por­tu­nity there. He would ex­plain to me what he saw with­out ask­ing and why he called what he called.”

Many of the top Whip­pets played both ways, in­clud­ing El­lis, who started three years at out­side line­backer. Imag­ine the top QB in the state also play­ing line­backer th­ese days. The de­fense gave up over 17 points a game, but it hardly made a dif­fer­ence.

“There were times play­ing de­fense when the other team would score and in my head I knew it didn’t mat­ter what they did be­cause we were go­ing to score,” said Fran Gre­gor, a se­nior full­back and line­backer. “There was such an air of con­fi­dence and you just felt com­fort­able all the time.”

Right off the bat, Al­len­town Cen­tral Catholic jolted the Whip­pets with a 48-25 de­feat in the opener, mak­ing the re­main­ing nine games do-or-die with only four teams qual­i­fy­ing for the District 1 play­offs.

The Whip­pets did not score fewer than 41 points the rest of the reg­u­lar sea­son, and by the time Novem­ber rolled around, they were a buz­z­saw.

“We played West Ch­ester East first in the league, who was pretty good, but it wasn’t a game (42-14),” Gre­gor said. “Then we played Coatesville, and that’s al­ways a big game, and it was the same thing (4917). We ran right through them and we started feel­ing the mo­men­tum lead­ing into the West Ch­ester Hen­der­son game for the Ch­esMont cham­pi­onship. It was built up as a huge game, but it ended up so one-sided (6120) and re­ally pro­pelled us for the post­sea­son.”

Late in the sea­son, Coatesville coach Jack Helm would go home and try to get some in­side in­for­ma­tion from his son, Brad, an un­der­class­man for the Whip­pets. Brad would just laugh and say ‘It doesn’t mat­ter. You can’t stop it any­way.’

“They were the per­fect storm,” Jack Helm said. “They had a com­bi­na­tion of great play­ers and also what we called com­pany men that went mostly un­sung, and they car­ried that team.”

Down­ing­town started the post­sea­son with a 3725 win over Cen­tral Bucks East be­fore host­ing Ply­mouth Whitemarsh at DiSer­afino Sta­dium for the district cham­pi­onship.

It would prove to be the fi­nal chal­lenge as the Whip­pets out­lasted the Colo­nials, 39-36, with fans lin­ing the fences on a frigid night.

“Of all the high school games I’ve been in or coached in, that game was the most in­tense game I’ve been a part of,” El­lis said. “We hadn’t been in a lot of close games and it was an un­be­liev­able at­mos­phere. It was cold and we got plays when we needed them against a re­ally good team. It was the most mem­o­rable game of the year, even more so than the state cham­pi­onship.”

Down­ing­town shut out Cough­lin 51-0 in the PIAA quar­ter­fi­nals, stormed past Park­land, 27-14, in the semi­fi­nals and rolled Wood­land Hills to avenge the crush­ing loss in 1994.

That ’94 team was led by star run­ning back Aaron Har­ris, who went on to play at Penn State. The un­de­feated Whip­pets were edged by McKeesport, 17-14, with a con­tro­ver­sial call on a Bryn Boggs run that was ruled short of the goal line that still stings.

“For us, com­ing up short re­ally gave us as­pi­ra­tions of get­ting back there,” Har­ris said. “And once we did, we were leav­ing no doubt who was the best team.”

To a locker room full of cry­ing high school ath­letes and coaches, Barr’s mes­sage was clear.

“I said ‘pick up your heads. That was the great­est ef­fort I’ve ever seen.’ It put the pro­gram in the po­si­tion and raised the level of ex­pec­ta­tion”

Barr ben­e­fit­ted from a great cast of ath­letes but he was also just the right mix of philoso­pher and de­mand­ing mo­ti­va­tor.

“The guy who made it go was John Barr,” El­lis said. “He cre­ated a cul­ture and an at­mos­phere and built it in a way ev­ery­one bought in. You didn’t have to like it, but you knew what was ex­pected of you.”

Barr stepped down as coach the fol­low­ing spring, pur­su­ing his ca­reer in lead­ing an al­ter­na­tive pro­gram in the Coatesville district. Helm took over at Down­ing­town and Barr was talked into coach­ing Coatesville.

The 1990’s were the hey­day of District 1 foot­ball, with Cen­tral Bucks West win­ning four ti­tles along with Down­ing­town’s. Just two ti­tles have come from District 1 since, in the era of pri­vate schools pulling tal­ent from all over.

Since the Down­ing­town district split in 2003, East and West have both had their fair share of good teams, but fans are left only to won­der how many state cham­pi­onships may have fol­lowed if there was still just one school.

The 1996 team re­mains the stan­dard of ex­cel­lence each pur­sues.

“That team, from ’94 to ’96, they lost one and then won one, and they set the bar for Down­ing­town foot­ball,” said cur­rent Down­ing­town East coach Mike Matta. “They’re the only two-time district champs from the league and set the bar for the lofty things you think about and talk about and try to com­pare to that great team.”

As years turn into decades and 1996 gets fur­ther and fur­ther away, mem­o­ries blur and van­ish. But those on and around that cham­pi­onship team have those kinds of mem­o­ries that just stick, no mat­ter what. There is a spe­cial kind of bond that is built be­tween team­mates and coaches and be­tween ath­letes and ac­com­plish­ment that is un­break­able.

“It means a lot more to me, per­son­ally, than just the state cham­pi­onship,” Barr said. “It was the cul­mi­na­tion of years of work at Down­ing­town, try­ing to es­tab­lish a mind­set with the foot­ball team that was a growth mind­set and to be cham­pi­ons and to rise above where Down­ing­town was when we got there. We spent a tremen­dous amount of time, com­mit­ment and hard work to get there.”

And that, is how lega­cies are cre­ated.


Down­ing­town play­ers cel­e­brate af­ter de­feat­ing Wood­land Hills, 49-14, for the PIAA cham­pi­onship in 1996.


Down­ing­town quar­ter­back Dan El­lis rolls out, while Wood­land Hills got flipped, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, in the PIAA cham­pi­onship.


Down­ing­town’s Arlen Har­ris breaks free on a run dur­ing a 61-20 win over Hen­der­son in the 1996 sea­son fi­nale.


Coach John Barr looks on dur­ing the 1996 state fi­nal against Wood­land Hills.

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