Sep. 18—It’s not easy to remember things that happened 20 years ago. But for the members of the 2001 Delhi football team, memories of that dream season are likely clear as day.
When Delhi hosts Walton at Dave Kelly Field on Saturday, the Bulldogs will be marking the 20th anniversary of the 2001 squad that won the New York State Class C Championship. More than 20 former players and coaches are expected to be in attendance and will be honored at halftime.
Among that group will be Kelly himself as well as Brett Sohns, a senior running back and defensive back on the 2001 squad.
When Sohns looks back on that magical season 20 years later, he remembers so much more than just what happened on the field.
“A championship run that we had is a marathon for everybody involved,” he said. “And the unique thing about that is not only that you’re playing sports but you’re also in the classroom and in the community and you have your family. I think juggling all those things at the same time would probably be the thing that I remember the most.”
The 2001 Bulldogs were a dominant squad that finished with a 12-1 record, scored 421 points and allowed just 150.
Four Delhi players earned All-State honors that season: linebacker Brian Neale (first team), quarterback Chris Clark (second team), offensive lineman Bill Shaw (third team), and defensive back Mike Barnes (third team).
The dream season ended at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse with a 39-21 victory over Cambridge (Section II) in the championship game.
Sohns said the camaraderie of that team — some of them had been playing together for a decade — and their desire to win for each other was what made it special.
“We worked out together in the summers, we worked out together in the offseason. We had a tradition of winning even since Pee Wee,” he said. “Whether we were playing basketball together or football together we were a team that didn’t take kindly to losing. Did we think we were gonna win every game? I don’t know that we thought that, and frankly we didn’t win every game; we lost one to Walton. But we came out thinking that we were gonna play hard and we were gonna win.”
Kelly’s name is synonymous with Delhi football, as evidenced by the fact that the Bulldogs’ field is named after him. In almost 50 years as head coach, he amassed 272 victories and four section titles. But even amongst all those teams over the years, he can still vividly recall the unique character of his 2001 squad.
“The thing that impressed me as much as anything was that a lot of the guys were very unselfish and very team-oriented, and each player seemed to take the responsibility of his position very seriously and didn’t want to be the one to mess up the play on offense or be the defender that the other team took advantage of,” Kelly said. “They were very responsible that way.”
While Delhi frequently won by double-digit margins on its road to the state title, it’s strength lay in the different ways it could win games.
“We had enough ability and enough line play that we could do a lot of the things that we wanted to do,” Kelly explained. “We could throw the ball… or we could grind it out. It’s largely whatever we thought we could do the best against our opponent.”
No opponent loomed larger for Delhi than its old rivals Walton. The Warriors handed the Bulldogs their only loss in the 2001 campaign, an 8-6 slugfest in the regular season finale that actually allowed Walton to finish ahead of Delhi in the division standings.
Sohns said that defeat provided a necessary ego check for the Bulldogs.
“The coaches that had brought us up through the ranks, they had what we thought was a pretty fine-tuned machine and we were putting up serious points on the scoreboard. We put up 60 points two weeks in a row,” he said. “Then you go and you lose to Walton and you’re like, ‘Gosh, maybe we’re not as good as we think.’ That’s healthy; that’s a healthy thing if you’re going through the marathon of a season to keep you focused on the task at hand.”
Kelly, Sohns, and the rest of the Bulldogs would get their revenge in the Section IV Championship when Delhi defeated Walton 20-6.
“We thought that we were a better team than Walton but we didn’t prove it in the regular season,” Kelly said. “In the sectional final where we met again we proved it that time which was very important.”
In some respects, the section championship may have been the biggest game of the season for Delhi. After edging Weedsport 21-14 in the state quarterfinals, the Bulldogs rolled past Salamanca 28-8 in the semifinals and finally downed Cambridge in the title game.
Kelly said that after the Walton game, he felt that he didn’t have to do too much to motivate his team.
“One of the things after the Walton game that stood out through the sectionals was that, even in practice, the coaches didn’t have to say that much in terms of being super critical because the players did it themselves,” he explained. “In other words, if they caught someone who wasn’t concentrating in practice, they’d get on ’em themselves. It was just something that was taken care of.”
Sohns remembers the enthusiastic support the team received from the community during their title run, with friends and family members making the long road trips to each successive game.
“These games aren’t close; if you want to go from Delhi to Syracuse, you’re talking a two-and-a-half-hour commute,” he said. “You’d look into the stands and you’d see thousands of people in the stands.”
Kelly, who retired in 2013, still lives in the area, while Sohns now resides in Saratoga Springs. Both men are excited to be able to see their old teammates and reflect on the memories of that season that will connect them with each other forever.
“It’s always good to see them,” Kelly said. “This one looks like it’s going to be a good day.”