The Lake-Lehman Black Knights received confirmation that they would have to proceed without starting outside linebacker Josh Winters just as the football playoffs were about to begin.
The number 23 that Winters wore all season could still be seen on the black turf at Edward Edwards Stadium in both rounds of the District 2 Class AA playoffs when Lake-Lehman won its first championship since 1997 to advance into the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association tournament.
Winters suffered a serious knee injury in a win over Hanover Area in the next-to-last game of the regular season. After missing the regular-season finale against Dallas, Winters received official word that he would not be able to return this season.
When the Black Knights took the field to open the District 2 playoffs, fellow senior Dustin Jones traded in his number 35 to wear 23 for the night. Jones ran for three touchdowns and a two-point conversion in a 35-0 win over Susquehanna.
“We found out that Friday what the results were,” Lake-Lehman coach Jerry Gilsky said. “He’s one of our senior captains. Dustin wanted to wear his jersey for the game because of how hard our kids worked together as a group.”
The Black Knights took an 11-game winning streak into Friday night’s state tournament opener against District 11 champion Catasauqua. They won Wyoming Valley Conference Class AA-A Division and District 2 Class AA titles along the way, despite having just six seniors on a 31-player roster.
When Lake-Lehman defeated Lakeland, 37-21, in the district final Nov. 15, another of those seniors was wearing Winters’ jersey. This time, wide receiver/defensive back Bobby Wright replaced his number 4 with 23.
While Jones and Wright took care of keeping Winters’ number on the field, others were responsible for adjusting Lake-Lehman’s defense to make up for absence.
After the defense struggled, particularly against the pass, in a 48-41 victory over Dallas, the Black Knights excelled in the district playoffs.
Gilsky used different combinations, but primarily went with Jimmy Stuart as an additional safety, switching from three defensive backs to four in a new alignment without Winters on the field.
It was not the first time Gilsky had to improvise. Before the season even started, the Black Knights lost offensive tackle Mason Little and defenseman back Jacob Yaple, a pair of projected starters, for the entire year with knee injuries.
Once again, Lake-Lehman has remained strong after altering plans.
“Our kids had to step up their play,” Gilsky said. “You can’t just put kids in positions they’re not ready for.”
The Black Knights have still been tough against the run. Susquehanna got more than half of its 145 yards rushing in the fourth quarter of a game that was decided while Lakeland managed just 82 yards on 29 carries.
The pass defense showed needed improvement. In two district games, opponents were 14-for-39 for 205 yards and three interceptions. The only touchdown pass came with less than a second remaining in the Lakeland game.
Although Lakeland produced 21 points in the district final, one touchdown came on its final play while facing a 37-13 deficit and another came on a kickoff return.
The latest big game by Jones, who is approaching the 4,000-yard rushing mark for his career, kept Lake-Lehman in command of the district final.
The 250-pound fullback carried 38 times for 311 yards and four touchdowns.
“Against Lakeland, we were taking advantage of a few things up front,” Gilsky said. “They were rolling their corners up to take away (the outside), so I said fine, ‘we’ll run it right at them’.
“Our other guys complement Dusty, too. But, if something’s working for us, we don’t get away from it. It’s like picking at a scab. We’ll just keep on picking at you.”
Brady Butler added 59 yards and a touchdown on nine carries to help a 417-yard ground game and Mike Symion kicked a 24-yard field goal to open the scoring.