DOWNINGTOWN >> For the first three-plus years of his high school career, Brandon Sanders drove by Kottmeyer Stadium on his way to St. Joseph’s Prep, with thoughts of ‘what if?’ floating somewhere in the back of his mind.
This week, as Friday’s Class 6A state semifinal against Coatesville nears, Sanders passes Kottmeyer and his mind races about what could be.
In the biggest game of his career, Sanders is returning to the place where his brilliant football career began a decade ago, and where he still calls home. And when he looks across the field, he will see numerous familiar faces of those he grew up playing with for the Downingtown Young Whippets, including Coatesville’s star brothers, Avery and Aaron Young.
“I drive past (Downingtown) West every day on my way to school and ultimately I’m very happy with the decision I made,” Sanders said. “Being at the Prep set me up where I am today, but once in awhile I think about ‘what if?’”
Sanders has become a star receiver for the Hawks in his senior season, but those in Downingtown knew that was more inevitable than a possibility.
For years, Sanders and Aaron Young shared the backfield for DYW, with Avery joining them every other year when the ages lined up. Aaron and Sanders played together six years in the Bert Bell League and won six championships.
With Sanders deciding to head to Philadelphia for high school, in lieu of Downingtown West, Friday will be the first time he gets a chance to go up against his old teammates and friends.
“One of the coaches came to one of our games and tried to get me and Avery and Aaron interested in (St. Joe’s Prep),” Sanders said. “It was far from home, but when I got there, there was a real sense of brotherhood. There are a lot of different backgrounds, but it’s a tight-knit community and I thought it would help set me up for better things in the future, integrating with different types of people.”
The Young brothers and Sanders will see a lot of each other, Friday, with the Youngs lining up at the cornerback spots across from Sanders.
A Bucknell commit, Sanders leads the Hawks with 30 receptions for 395 yards and eight touchdowns. Avery, who’s committed to Rutgers University has five interceptions, while Aaron, who’s uncommitted as a junior, has three and hopes all those battles in practice together back in the day will pay off.
“I know a couple of his favorite moves so hopefully I’ll get a little step on him,” Aaron said.
It’s no coincidence that the stars of this semifinal game were stars as pee-wees. Some of those DYW rosters were loaded with multi-sport talent.
In 2008, not only did the 80-pound Young Whippets have the Youngs and Sanders, but also former Downingtown East phenom Jeremy Jennings, West’s wrestling state champion Doug Zapf and a handful of others still making impacts today.
Years later the trio played alongside of Jennings, Coatesville’s Mekhi Alexander, as well as current and former West stars, Cole Zapf, Dan Byrnes and Nick Sicilia.
“This group of kids, you knew were going to be something special,” said Doug DeLia, who was the 120-pound DYW coach of this group.
It’s hard to deny the idea of all that talent continuously sharpening one another.
“To me, the biggest thing is they were so talented but their work ethic was top notch,” DeLia said. “They wanted to get better every day and their football IQ was just tremendous. These were 11 and 12 years old and I’d go to them during games and they would tell me what they were seeing and what plays we could run. And they were normally right.”
Also not coincidentally, those old DYW teams had to consistently get through playoff matchups against Brandywine Youth Club, which feeds into District 1-6A runner-up, Garnet Valley, Springfield and a Marple Newtown team led by a star running back named Marlon Weathers.
Sanders credits all those trials and successes for his transition into his new surroundings at the Prep. After not getting a ton of action his first three seasons on a team that has won three of the last four big school state titles, he’s become the go-to guy in the passing game. And he knows he’ll get the best from his counterparts, Friday.
“First and foremost, (the Youngs) are really hard workers,” Sanders said. “Their entire lives they’ve been the guys who stay late and make sure everything is perfect. They’re attentive to details, they’re physical and they’re very explosive. That’s one of the things that sets them apart, their ability to shift in to another gear. They’re just football players and they have great instincts.”
When District 12 joined the PIAA in 2008, the draw of joining powerhouse, nationally-ranked teams in this region has grown. While it has impacted public school rosters, as well as postseason outcomes, the movement has also given student athletes different opportunities to set up their futures.
Sanders made that decision and it has been tremendously fruitful for him. Fittingly, he’s finally getting a home game for the first time in his high school career.
“It’s crazy that it all worked out, starting in Downingtown, then going away in ninth grade and finishing it off where he would’ve played,” said Aaron, of his friend’s journey.
Be sure, after all the winning they did together as youths, whoever leads his team to Hershey for the state championship won’t soon let the other forget it.