Saunders 'leads' Thorpe's turnaround
He ran for over 1,500 yards, many times either slipping out of tackles or making defenders miss.
He passed for 1,000 more, improving his skills from week-to-week until he became a feared threat through the air.
He scored 17 touchdowns and 120 points, statistics that helped his team claim a league championship.
All those numbers propelled Jim Thorpe's Ryan Saunders II to win awards and honors, including this year's TIMES NEWS Football Player of the Year. But they don't tell the whole story. In fact, it was a different quality that made the senior quarterback more valuable to the Olympians in 2013.
"You couldn't ask for a better leader," said head coach Mark Rosenberger. "The leadership he showed this year in his senior season was outstanding. He's a hard-nosed football player and he just willed us to win. He threw us on his back.
"He's a kid who fights for every yard or two. He never gives up on plays. His determination to extend plays and make something out of nothing is impressive. But I think overall his desire to will us to win as a quarterback was what made him so special."
Saunders displayed that attitude from game one. After suffering through back-to-back 1-9 seasons, the 5-10, 172-pounder was determined not to let that happen again this year.
So in the season opener at Tamaqua, he ran for 154 yards and two scores to lead his club to a decisive win.
"I think the Tamaqua game stood out most to me," said Rosenberger. "That's the one I think about. In the third and fourth quarters he wanted the ball in his hands ... With that game, his confidence grew but also the entire team's confidence grew. You could see the momentum of our team just changing and the mentality that 1-9 is not going to happen to us this year. His confidence exuded into the rest of the team. And that's a big reason why we turned out being the champions we were this year."
That 34-14 victory and the performance by Saunders wasn't an aberration. Instead it was a sign of things to come.
The Olympian signal-caller reached 100 yards on the ground in nine of his team's 11 games, including a season-high 232 against then-undefeated Mahanoy Area. But more importantly, those figures resulted in check marks in the win column.
"I was surprised after the Tamaqua game," said Saunders, who hopes to attend college to pursue a degree in the nursing field. "I thought that was going to be my best game ... We had the 1-9 seasons before so this year, for me, the big focus was getting the team wins. I wasn't concerned with the stats but after a while I suddenly realized that my numbers were adding up."
Did they ever.
Saunders became just one of 10 TIMES NEWS area players, and the first quarterback, over the past 25 years to reach 1,500 rushing yards (he finished with 1,570 on 222 carries, an average of over seven yards per attempt). He complemented the ground game with 1,005 passing yards and 10 touchdown tosses.
"I don't think you're ever going to expect to have a quarterback that runs for 1,500 yards," said Rosenberger. "That's impressive. It tells a lot about him as an athlete and a football player. As far as what makes him so good running the football, I think he has great vision. He has very good speed and he's hard to tackle. For a small kid, he runs hard ... Ryan continued to grow into an overall quarterback and he became one of our better throwing quarterbacks by the time the season ended."
The funny thing about Saunders is that he didn't even start his career as a quarterback.
But as his talents emerged, it was obvious that one day he would have the ball in his hands.
"When I was growing up I didn't expect to be a running back or quarterback," said Saunders. "I was a lineman when I was younger. I didn't become a starting quarterback until I was in sixth grade. But I started laughing when people would miss me ... We'd do tag drills during the summer and it was great when you can juke someone out and make someone fall. It's just a lot of fun."
Saunders, also known by his nickname RSII, also gained enjoyment by just being around his teammates. It didn't hurt, either, that Thorpe finished first in the AFL with a 7-1 record.
"The whole year was just so amazing," said Saunders, who received plenty of support from dad Ryan Saunders and his wife Tracie, and his mom Tracy Mikolawski and her husband Chris. "I don't think there's any team that can say that they had more fun than our team this year. It was unbelievable how much fun we had. We did everything together.
"It definitely felt great winning the title. When they came in and gave us the AFL trophy, the whole school knew, the town knew and everybody knew that we were back. Jim Thorpe is known for good football and it was a great thing that we could win it this year."
Good football and good quarterbacks often go hand-in-hand, and the list of quality signal-callers at JT has now grown by one.
"We've had some great quarterbacks over the years," said Rosenberger. "The people that have played quarterback here have done some special things. Corey Cinicola was a special athlete and so were guys like Dan Flizack, Craig Zurn and Pat Duvigneaud. And now you can add Ryan Saunders."