UPPER DUBLIN >> The PIAA Class AAAA semifinal playoff football game was over, and the victorious players of Parkland High School were doing the things that winning teams do – hugging, yelling, crying.
But on the other side of the field, Upper Dublin quarterback Ryan Stover was locked in a loving, reassuring and tearful hug with his father and Upper Dublin head coach Bret Stover.
The duo had led the Cardinals football program where it had never been before, to the Class AAAA district championship and to within a victory of playing for the state title. And now, they were holding each other up.
Dejected, to be sure, but also reveling in a season and a high school career that began with promise and came to an end with that promise being fulfilled.
Rarely in this day when much is promised and little is delivered does one see the glass half-full.
For the Stovers, the glass spilled over.
Upper Dublin more than met its lofty expectations.
And that was due, in part, to the play of Ryan Stover, who passed for 2,525 yards and ran for another 1,004 and helped carry the Cardinals to the brink of state gold.
For his achievements, Stover is, for the second successive season, The Times Herald Offensive Player of the Year.
“I don’t know if any of it has sunk in yet,” Stover said. “It was a great season. We went to places Upper Dublin football has never been before.
“For us to win a district title, it’s one of those indescribable things.”
And Stover reluctantly took some of the credit.
“I’d say I had a good, solid year,” he said. “I got my team where we wanted to go and I feel I improved my game so much.”
Some of that improvement came from Stover’s drive to be prepared for the upcoming season.
“I took off the spring season of sports and went to junior day camps for quarterbacks, I did a lot of lifting and a lot of running.”
That attention to hard work was mirrored by his Cardinals teammates, who knew the expectations that followed a season in which the team reached the District One Class AAAA semifinals before losing to eventual district champ Pennsbury.
“We all read the headlines in the preseason,” Stover said. “Everybody said, ‘This is the one year they can do it.’
“Then after we read them we forgot about them. We knew the way to success was to do what we’d always done, and that was to go week to week, to prepare exactly the same every week.”
And so they did, and scythed a path through the Suburban One League’s American Conference, ultimately winning the conference title while whipping their conference foes by the average score of 45-5.
“We treated every game the same,” Stover said. “Maybe there was something special about the Plymouth Whitemarsh game because we were playing there, but we wound up winning that game, 42-0.
“But we treated every game with such attention to detail.”
With their SOL conference foes vanquished, the Cardinals turned their thoughts to the playoffs, where, naturally, they were considered overwhelming underdogs.
After all, their schedule was thought to be substandard, their squad size was paltry, and realistically, only schools like North Penn and Pennsbury and Coatesville won District One titles, right?
“I read the forums, too,” Stover said, “and after we got past the first round nobody was picking us.”
But that insult hardly bothered the Cardinals, who had prior experience in high-stakes games.
“We are one of the most fun teams around,” Stover said. “We knew a couple of years ago that something like this was realistic.
“We had all played in big playoff games as kids and we knew about the pressure. We had that experience.”
The opening district playoff game was against Garnet Valley, and Stover turned that game in the Cardinals’ favor early, when he sprinted 83 yards on a designed run to put the Cardinals on top. They won going away, 35-3.
“That run is one I remember because it made a difference,” Stover said. “My dad called it and said it could go, and it did.
“And it set the tone for the whole game.”
Next up was Upper Darby, and once again the Cardinals were underdogs and laughingly overmatched in sheer numbers.
“We used to watch the game film and laugh,” Stover said. “You’d see (the opponent’s) sidelines and their players would stretch from one 25-yard line to the other.
“Then you’d see our sidelines and it looked like we only had a couple of players there.”
The Pennsbury game that followed was a true test, a rematch of last year’s district semifinal and one that the Cardinals and their coaches secretly feared.
“We were leery of the game because if we got beat again, people would say we were only so good, and not good enough to beat those types of programs,” Coach Stover said.
It turned out to be the closest game along the District One road for the Cardinals, going down to the wire until a late field goal assured Upper Dublin of a 24-14 victory.
The district title game against North Penn was next, and again, few gave the Cardinals a chance against the perennial district champions.
And when the Cardinals fell behind at halftime, 21-17, it looked like they were finally going to yield to the big, bad Knights.
Instead, Upper Dublin took over the second half, scoring 29 unanswered points to pull out a 46-21 win, and it was time to celebrate a district championship.
“Winning a district championship in a sport like football is so tough,” Stover said. “It’s been two weeks since we won it and I still don’t believe it.”
The district now behind them, the Cardinals found themselves facing a Parkland team that, like the North Penns and Pennsburys, were accustomed to playing in big games.
The Trojans were part of the biggest school in District 11 and had already been to the state finals twice, splitting the two decisions.
On film, the Cardinals coaches said Parkland looked predictable, but what Upper Dublin didn’t count on was the Trojans’ size.
From the outset of the Eastern final, the Trojans were storming into the Cardinals backfield at will.
“We were confident,” Stover said, “but we really didn’t deserve to win.
“We killed ourselves with mistakes, but they played a real good game. They were big, tough and they had some crazy blitz packages that were tough to read. We had a bigger line than what Upper Dublin is used to having, but we weren’t close to as big as they were, Plus, they had ability. They were just a very good football team, and they deserved to win.”
Since the disappointment, Stover has already transitioned into basketball.
But there was more good news on the football front.
On the morning of Dec. 18, Stover gave a verbal commitment to attend Towson University, where he’s been told he’ll be competing for the starting quarterback job immediately.
“They first contacted me, I think, in Week Five of our season and they came to see me in Week Six,” Stover said. “It’s a good fit for me. They have a wide-open offense and it’s similar to the one I ran (at Upper Dublin).
“I’ve been there, but I haven’t taken my official visit yet. I think the next one is the third week in January.
As for the father-son conversation after the Parkland game, Stover said he’d rather let it remain personal.
“Let’s just say my dad said he was so proud of the man I’d become through football,” Stover said.
The Upper Dublin program can be just as proud.