It didn’t take long for Delta football coach Grant Zgunda, as he talked about the Delta-Yorktown rivalry of which he’s been on both sides, to get to that game.
He’s been head coach for 17 years, and it’s been 16 since his Eagles last met the Tigers in the postseason. That year, his team came in as favorites with a 26-13 regular season win under its belt and left with a loss. He watched a 10-0 lead become a 14-10 defeat against a team that went 3-6 in the regular season, and you can tell the memories still stick a bit.
“We lost, so they’re not good,” Zgunda said.
Now, all these years later, class realignment and fate have conspired to bring the long-time county rivals together again with seasons on the line.
“It doesn’t get much bigger than this,” said Zgunda, admitting he feels bad for schools that don’t have a rivalry like this one. “This is only the second time that the two schools have ever met for a sectional championship. We were in 4A the past few years.
“So this doesn’t happen very often. It’s something I’m sure both schools are looking forward to it.”
Friday night, Yorktown and Delta will face off at Yorktown with a 3A sectional crown in the balance. This time, it’s the Tigers as favorites, with a 10-1 record and a 20-6 win in the regular season meeting. The Eagles have won five of their last six games this season on the strength of their running game, and hope to deny Yorktown its fourth sectional title in program history.
On the Yorktown side, talk of the rivalry between the programs, separated by about a 20-minute drive, was played down. Yes, it’s the team’s biggest rival, a close-by team that’s perpetually good, but there’s a sectional title to play for, what more do you need?
Even after his team won its last game to set up this showdown, Tigers running back Peyton Stites was quick to say his team had to avoid extra-curriculars (trash talk on social media) and just see it as a game.
Yorktown coach Mike Wilhelm said the best part was how it ignited the fans, provided a near-college atmosphere around a high school game. The players don’t need any extra motivation. They’re trying to be the first team in school history to win 11 games, but Wilhelm noted a rivalry needs a little something more.
“I’ve said for years, it’s not really a rivalry until it’s even,” said Wilhelm, who is looking for a third consecutive win in the series. “And it it’s not even yet. Delta’s still out ahead of us overall.”
For the players, the tone is friendlier, as technology shrinks the distances between communities and many played youth league together. Yorktown quarterback Riley Neal, who has evolved into probably the top offensive weapon in the county, said the bragging rights on the line are good-natured and not so rough-and-tumble.
He has a link back to those days, as his father Jess and uncle Jay played for the Tigers in the early 1980s.
“It was more intense back then,” Riley Neal said. “I think it’s more how the game’s changed. They don’t want trash talking on the field.
“It’s just kind of shied away from that.”
That’s an era Zgunda remembers well because he went to Yorktown in the mid-1980s, back when the town was more of a rural community like Delta’s is now and less the quasi-suburb it’s become.
“We didn’t have cell phones and Facebook and Twitter and all that,” Zgunda said. “So we didn’t talk to kids from the other side. We stayed away from them. And you didn’t like them. That’s what we were taught.
“It was definitely different.”
Through all that, it’s still a football game with big implications, Yorktown looking for a first sectional since 2008, Delta a first since 2009.
In the meeting this season, both teams came away fretting about not finishing drives. The Tigers pulled ahead early as Delta’s offense floundered, and the Eagles couldn’t quite climb back in.
That day, Eagles tailback Joe Spegal was limited to 83 yards on 20 carries, his second-worst output of the season. Since then, he’s had at least 191 yards and three touchdowns in six of seven games, setting single-season school marks in rushing yards and touchdowns.
His effectiveness against a stingy Yorktown defense and the ability of Neal (2,381 passing yards, 26 TDs, 4 ints, 1,075 rushing yards, 22 TDs) to have an all-encompassing command of an offense will be crucial factors. But at the end, it’s simple.
Back in the same class, two teams from the same county do this dance again, with a clear-eyed view of the stakes.
“If you lose, it’s your last game,” Delta senior quarterback Cade Jones said. “It’s a great time to play your rival, I guess. For all the bragging rights, I guess. No one’s going to remember the other games if you don’t win this one.”
Friday’s ECI Playoff Games
• Class 3A: Delta at Yorktown, 7 p.m.
• Class 2A: Winchester at Shenandoah, 7 p.m.