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Even Stranger Things: It Was a Special Sports Year at Redbank Valley, Full of Plot Twists and Success Stories

NEW BETHLEHEM, Pa. (EYT/D9) — The 2021-22 school year at Redbank Valley will be one Marquese Gardlock won’t soon forget.

“With everything that’s happened,” Gardlock said, “I think they could probably make a Netflix series about it.”

(Photos by Madison McFarland)

Bulldog football coach Blane Gold agrees.

“You could probably find a few storylines,” he said.

There certainly was enough intrigue, drama and plot twists to fill a season’s worth of scripts.

There were underdog stories and shocking upsets. There were riveting playoff runs. Improbable individual efforts. Victories against all the odds. It all happened amid the backdrop of a teacher’s strike in the fall.

A very memorable year, to be sure.

Working title: Even Stranger Things.

“Yeah,” said Gardlock, laughing. “That would be a good one.”

The seeds to the 2021-22 show were planted in the fall of 2020.

Call it a prequel.

All within a few weeks, the football, girls soccer and volleyball teams at Redbank Valley won District 9 championships.

“It’s not just last year,” Gold said. “If you go back the last couple of years, it’s been a special two-year run. Hopefully the kids who are coming up will take it upon themselves to keep that going.”

It’ll be difficult, however, to top what occurred in the fall, winter and spring sports seasons at Redbank Valley.

It started with the football team.

No one gave the Redbank much of a chance on a blustery early December night at North Hill’s Martorelli Stadium against undefeated District 7 champion Bishop Canevin in the PIAA Class A semifinals.

The Crusaders were the heavy favorites. In fact, many pundits were already penciling Bishop Canevin in for the championship game six days later.

Redbank Valley had other plans.

Midway through the third quarter, however, things looked bleak for the Bulldogs.

Up 14-7, Bishop Canevin was driving for a score that would have all but put the game away. Instead, senior safety Chris Marshall made one of the best plays in Redbank Valley sports history.

It even has a name. “The Pick Six.”

Marshall read the eyes of Crusader quarterback Jason Cross, cut in front of a pass for an interception at the 2 and sprinted 98 yards for a touchdown. What could have been a 21-7 deficit was instead a 14-14 tie.

More importantly, momentum swung heavily to Redbank Valley’s favor on that one play.

The Bulldogs went on to win 23-14. Another senior standout, defensive end Joe Mansfield, put the game out of reach with a quarterback sack for a safety in the waning moments.

Redbank had done the improbable: knocked off a WPIAL juggernaut.

“It was amazing,” said Bryson Bain, a senior quarterback on the football team who had a front row seat to two other highly successful seasons this year in basketball and baseball. “I actually didn’t have any success my first three years — I got my first playoff win ever in football this year. After going through those frustrating years, it was pretty cool.”

And like any good story, there were obstacles to overcome.

Redbank Valley was beaten in the season opener by rival Keystone. The loss came back to bite the Bulldogs, who didn’t even win the District 9 Small School South division.

The team also had to deal with a teacher’s strike that was sometimes contentious and disrupted a normal routine.

Redbank, though, tried to put a positive spin on the work stoppage.

“It was definitely an advantage for us because we were able to spend more time preparing,” Gold said.

The Redbank Valley football team put on a strong showing in the championship game, but eventually fell to Bishop Guilfoyle, 21-14.

The strike affected the entire school year — graduation was pushed back until mid-June.

In an odd way, though, it brought the student body and the athletes closer together.

It certainly allowed them to appreciate all the success more.

In the winter, the girls basketball team won the District 9 championship, ending Punxsutawney’s seven-year strangle hold on the title. The boys basketball team reached the D9 title game, but lost. The Bulldogs did win a state playoff game before bowing out of the PIAA tournament with a quarterfinal loss to Kennedy Catholic.

In the spring, more success came. The girls track and field team won the District 9 team title for the first time in school history and the baseball team recreated the magic of the football team with a remarkable upset win over an undefeated WPIAL opponent, Serra Catholic, in the state playoffs.

“I think it just says a lot about, not even the senior class, but the sophomore, juniors and freshmen — everyone — who played together,” said senior Claire Clouse, who was a member of two District 9 champions this season in basketball and track. “It’s the people I’ve known forever. Watching us all accomplish what we accomplished this year, it was just crazy. I look back and I still can’t believe we did all that my senior year.”

Bain was part of those two major upsets over WPIAL team.

As baseball coach Craig Hibell said, “Redbank 2, Goliath 0.”

Bain said part of the reason for all the success this year was, well, all the success.

“You have dudes on the football team who play basketball and then you have a lot of dudes on the basketball team who play baseball,” Bain said. “It’s a winning culture. It’s just seeing how winning works.”

It was also much-needed given the tumult of the last few years.

First there was COVID costing athletes their spring campaigns. Then, of course, the strike.

“I think those kids really did a lot to kind of heal our community and bring our community together at times,” Gold said.

There were also individual success stories.

Owen Clouse set the single-season record for goals scored for the boys soccer team, breaking a mark that had stood for two decades.

During the basketball season, Marshall and Bain each surpassed 1,000 career points in the same game.

And then there was Mylee Harmon.

The freshman made a huge impact on the girls basketball team, coming off the bench to average 12.6 points and provide a spark with her speed and penchant for getting steals.

But it’s what she did on the track that will be long remembered.

Harmon wasn’t sure what to expect out of her first track and field season in high school. Sure, she excelled at the junior high level, but was uncertain about things heading into this spring.

Then her times in the 200- and 400-meter dashes got faster with each meet. Her marks in the high jump also steadily improved. The records began falling. Eventually, she broke all three.

Her coronation came at the District 9 championship meet on a muggy day and night in Brookville.

She won the high jump, 200 and 400, breaking her own school record again in the 400.

Harmon then clinched the team title for Redbank with a scintillating final leg of the 4×400 relay.

The best for Harmon was yet to come. Her star-making moment arrived at the PIAA Track and Field Championships.

Harmon was in fifth place on the final turn of the 400 finals, but a legendary kick over the last 100 meters carried her to the state title and another school-record time of 57.15 seconds.

Claire Clouse was there at Shippensburg University. She still can’t believe what she saw.

“It made me nervous there for a little bit,” Clouse said. “Then part of me was like, ‘Mylee cares about this event the most. If she wants it, she’s going to go get it.’ And she did.”

Harmon still hasn’t completely realized what she was able to accomplish.

“No,” she said, giggling. “It hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Harmon said winning the District 9 team title in track and in basketball means just as much to her.

“Especially for all the seniors,” she said. “I was just so happy to help do that for them. They are all really amazing.”

With such high rating in 2021-22, expectations for future seasons at Redbank Valley have increased.

They’ll be new protagonists and new plot twists. More adversity, certainly, and surely some unexpected antagonists.

By the closing credits, everyone involved in Redbank Valley athletics hopes the magic of this year can be recaptured.

“I think it’s very special,” Gardlock said. “A lot of people have been saying that this is the best senior class Redbank’s ever had. But, I don’t know. We have good kids in all classes. It’s just so unreal for me. We went to states in football and that was the start of the year. Then Mylee went to states in track and got a first place at the end of the year. It been all very special.”