FLORENCE — The present, and future, is bright for the Florence Falcons.
Florence hits the road on Saturday to take on the Fairfield Eagles in the Class B football state semifinals. If the Falcons win, it will be their first-ever appearance in the Class B title game, and regardless of the outcome between Manhattan and Glasgow in the other semifinal, Florence would host the state championship.
But it didn't always look like this. Senior Jonny Chamberlin remembers vividly in 2017, when the Falcons squeaked into the postseason with a 4-4 regular-season record before bowing out to Fairfield, 56-14.
"It means a lot honestly because we kind of paved the way for these younger kids," said Chamberlin, a running back and defensive back for Florence. "I feel like we're setting more of an example for them so hopefully they can bring it on and keep it going."
Florence sits at 8-1, its lone loss an overtime thriller to Manhattan in the second week of the season. But on a team this successful, the Falcons' senior class is smaller in size with just seven on the roster, including Chamberlin, Cadence Waller, Eli Pederson, Aidan Tollefson, Jake Dixon, Keegan Reed and Chase Bovee.
That 2017 season was the first year for Pat Duchien as head coach after spending the previous five as an assistant. This year's senior class has stuck it out with him throughout the past three years with incremental success until finally knocking on the door of the state championship game.
"I think probably the biggest thing for these guys is the seniors that you're talking to, we've had them for four years now," Duchien said. "So the expectation around here is to win football games. In years past, couple of years prior to us taking over, I was on the staff and we had a lot of kids that were almost just happy to be on the bus and be a part of the team, where these guys have taken it serious and said, 'You know what? We want to become one of those programs that's dominant and that leaves a legacy by the time that we graduate from here.'
"Hats off to the seniors that have been with us. They're obviously holding their heads high in school and some of these other guys are seeing it and they're going, 'Hey, I want to be a part of what you guys got going on.' This group of seniors is special. It's the most unselfish group of seniors that I've seen in my four years as a head (coach) and that's just a testament to who they are."
But regardless of how 2020 closes out for Florence, the groundwork has been laid by this senior class for the Falcons to be a mainstay at the top of the Class B ranks. In 2017, 29 players came out for football. This year? Florence sports 47 players.
"It's been amazing," senior lineman and captain Keegen Reed said. "Our freshman year we went from only having 29 kids to now having (more than) 40 and going to the semifinal. That's pretty amazing to be a part of."
The younger players have accepted the culture and challenges the upperclassmen have brought forward, and in turn Florence is enjoying one of its most successful seasons to date with eyes on the future as well.
"I think we will be good for the next couple of years and I just hope we can keep that going after we leave," Reed said. "We just teach them, mentor them a little bit, and hopefully they pick it up. They're pretty determined and they're easy to teach, too. But that determination they have and that grit is just amazing and that's what's going to make this team good for them."
The underclassmen stars -- like juniors Levi Posey, Blake Shoupe, Ethan Abbott, Luke Maki and Tristan Pyette and sophomore Pat Duchien, son of the elder Duchien -- typically are the play-makers for the Falcons. But they've watched, learned and suited up alongside this senior class and are primed to carry that torch into the future.
"It really is heartwarming to me knowing that they're going to be able to live on the legacy that we were once able to start," Chamberlin said. "The biggest thing about the underclassmen is they've watched us. We've been their role models, so they've been great. They fit right into the culture. They're all good kids, they're all fun. We all love to hang out with them and mess around with each other and we like to compete against each other.
"The most special thing about this is, it's my senior year and I really have wanted to live on a really good high school career for sports. High school football has been really fun and just how these kids have stepped up and contributed to the team makes it a lot easier for me to want to play and compete even more."
Florence and Fairfield are no strangers either. After Florence also lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2018, the Falcons and Eagles met again in 2019, this time in the quarterfinals. Again, Fairfield won.
Fairfield's championship pedigree runs deep and recent, with the Eagles winning it all in 2015 and 2018. Florence, meanwhile, is aiming for its first appearance in a state championship game since 1980 when the Falcons were competing in the 8-Man ranks.
And Duchine and Co. want to send this senior class off in a way no Falcon player has in 40 years, with a chance to experience and possibly win the state championship game.
"I think these seniors that are going out this year, they're going to be able to look back on it and they're going to be able to hold their heads the highest, saying, 'We did the right things, we did what we were supposed to do, we went to work every day,'" Duchien said. "Hopefully it pays off and they can get into a state championship game and see what that's like."