There was a moment last Sunday when the chatter inside Erik Werner’s headphones stopped and he looked over his shoulders.
The Hornell varsity football coach’s gaze went up from the field at Sahlen’s Stadium, into the stands and across rows of people in combinations of red and blue.
“They are on their feet, cheering for you and their football team,” Werner, 33, said. “You feel blessed.
“When the loss comes, it’s not going to be the end of the world. This town is going to support the guys. If this is the year, the dissapointment will come because we don’t get to play again next week.”
The Hornell Red Raiders have stacked wins for weeks, which add up to years and formed a pile that could be recognized nationally. Only the Clairton Bears of Pennsylvania own an unbeaten streak longer than Hornell’s 49 consecutive wins in the entire country, according to MaxPreps.com.
To hit 50, Hornell (10-0) must get past Cleveland Hill (8-2), the Buffalo-area champion, on Saturday. The Class C state tournament quarterfinal at All High Stadium in Buffalo, kicks off at noon.
“People bring it up,” Hornell senior receiver/defensive back Brendan Buisch said. “Obviously, you don’t want to talk about it or jinx it. Everyone wants to take you down. Most schools come out pretty jacked to play.”
Hornell’s wins came inside recognizable places like the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, home of the state championships. Wins came where there were simply sets of bleachers, goal posts, a pressbox and a painted field, like Bishop Kearney in Irondequoit.
Wins came in Dansville, Batavia, Bath and Buffalo. No matter where the Hornell Red Raiders went, a noticeable crowd of red and blue was sure to go.
“It’s awesome,” Hornell senior linebacker/running back Zack Bacon said. “It makes you feel like a rock star. I remember in 2009, the first year we went to states. You could feel the excitement, the ground almost shook.”
When the Red Raiders became Section V champions last Sunday, they equaled the sectional record for an unbeaten streak set by Caledonia-Mumford, which was stopped in 1981.
“Nowadays, it’s quite a feat,” former Caledonia-Mumford coach Mike Monacelli said. “It might be more of a feat, because of the state playoff situation. Now, you travel around the state playing the best of the best. Not to downplay what happened at Cal-Mum in the 1970s and 80s, but it’s different.”
Bacon last left a football game unhappy with a loss as an eighth-grader with the Hornell JV. Hornell’s win streak began the next fall, right next to the school and inside the stadium with artificial turf and a covered grandstand on Seneca Street.
“All high school sports are important to a small town like Hornell,” 57-year-old lifelong resident and assistant coach Mike Davidson said. “Playing on Friday nights, adds to the excitement and we have a fantastic facility. There is only one team, if you want to go to a football game. It’s a blue-collar, hard-working place. On Fridays, after you’re done working for the week, you enjoy a football game. There is nothing unusual about that.”
Hornell’s level of success over decades is something unusual at a level where win totals cycle up and down because recruiting is illegal.
There are the 10 Section V titles in the last 16 years alone. The last three seasons ended with Hornell as state champions in Class B.
“It comes down to the way we practice, the way we run the team,” Bacon said. “It’s hard-nosed. You dig a little deeper when the time comes.
“When I was in ninth-grade, you got thrown out there. You learn that you get back up and try again. The younger players, I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, it happens to everyone.’ ”
Offseason weightlifting became an expectation at Hornell during the early 1980s, maybe just ahead of when it became in fashion at other schools with football teams.
Views of opponents on film, which also can be done on-line at an individual player’s request these days, is another clue how preparation is valued by Hornell football.
“The time and effort that everyone puts into it is appreciated,” Davidson said. “It’s a year-round sport in Hornell.
“Gene Mastin, the previous coach, really set the bar at a high level. It’s not just in terms of wins, but the effort he put into it.”
Mastin barely announced his retirement after 28 seasons as Hornell’s coach last fall, when he was selected for induction into the Section V Football Hall of Fame.
Hornell failed to qualify for the 1982 sectionals. The next year was Mastin’s first as coach, and it was far from the last in which the Red Raiders reached a sectional final.
“You can tell what day of the year it is based on what we are doing (as a team),” Mastin said. “The kids really bought into that. All of the kids know the expectations.”
Players talk to people who live outside of Hornell, but follow the team to all games. Paddy’s Pub and Grill is the site of team dinners the evening before every game.
“I don’t think we have to call for reservations,” Bacon said about the team dinner. “They have a Red Raider burger. You have great people all around you.
“We have a thing where on the last day of double sessions, we bring the youth players over to watch us practice, then we scoop ice cream for them.”
The result is one large team that Werner feels has the Red Raiders’ back.
“If something goes wrong for someone, there’s so many people who come to help,” Werner said. “This town loves it’s football, it loves its sports.”