There's a slogan on the football team at Downingtown West High School – each year, they aim to be the best West ever. Friday's victory against sworn rival Downingtown East in the highly anticipated Battle of the Brandywine was a leap towards that goal.
The team's shared venue, Kottmeyer Stadium, was unsurprisingly packed with blue, gold, black, and white; both student sections were bursting at the seams with fans supporting their side of town.
In front of a roaring crowd, a soaring 77-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter solidified the Whippets' 31-28 come-from-behind win against the Cougars.
"East-West football is as good as it gets with high school football games," said West's head coach Mike Milano, the Philadelphia Eagles High School Coach of the Week, presented by Hyundai.
"The atmosphere is amazing, the student bodies on both sides, all of Downingtown comes out."
The annual game is one that both teams circle the moment they receive their schedule – bragging rights and a conference win are always on the line. This time, a Ches-Mont League Championship, though shared with Coatesville, was added to the victor's winnings.
When the clock ran out, seniors on both sides shed tears – some of joy and some of longing, as their final rivalry game concluded.
"Football is not a lifetime sport. It's a once-in-a-lifetime sport. Most of these kids will never get a chance to play again, and so consequently, you see kids who are seniors that know they're not going to play in college, just tearful, just broken down, emotional after games like that," Milano said.
Milano led West to its eighth all-time win against Downingtown East, improving the Whippets' impressive record to 8-1.
Friday's matchup marked the 19th "East-West" game in the town's history. It was also the 19th meeting between head coaches Mike Milano and Michael Matta – who've sat at the helm of their respective teams since Downingtown split into two schools in 2003.
"A lot of people felt like if Downingtown split, it would kill football in Downingtown. What's happened is the opposite. A lot of kids who never would have got a chance to play are getting a chance to play and showcase their talents," Milano said, reflecting on the split.
"The first East-West game was unbelievable. There were people tailgating at lunchtime on that day. It's been crazy!"
Milano knows how important football is to the community. A Downingtown alumni himself, he grew up on it. He was part of the very first Downingtown Young Whippets (DYW) team, the local Pop Warner program serving as a developmental pipeline to the middle school and high school teams.
DYW is where he fell in love with football, first as a child, then again when he coached youth football after he served in the Army until 1973.
"I got out of the service, and I started coaching youth football. I loved it. I loved the X's and O's. I loved working with the kids," Milano said.
"Then, I got hired to coach football at the junior high – when I found out that they paid the coach, I couldn't believe that! I think I was the first non-faculty coach in any sport in the history of Downingtown."
Milano coached while carrying out his duties as a mailman in Downingtown for 18 years. But he wanted to advance to the high school level, so that's what he did.
"I knew I had to be a teacher to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish coaching football. So I went back to college as a non-traditional and got my degree in three years. My wife kept my family together; I knocked out 120 credits in three years while I was a full-time mailman," Milano said.
"So, football has kind of always driven things for me is what I'm trying to say. So much so that I worked to change careers in my 30s to get where I am today."
And where is he today? A fixture of Downingtown West athletics in his 20th season coaching the Whippets.
West is 142-75-1 through his tenure; they've seen recurring success over the past two decades. But it hasn't always been easy for the Whippets.
2021 was plagued with adversity the team hadn't seen before. The team endured two losses in the final 30 seconds to Coatesville and Downingtown East last year, but the result of those games doesn't begin to scratch the surface of their heartbreak that year.
In May 2021, the Whippets lost beloved teammate Cos Villari to suicide, leaving an irreparable absence in the community.
"That senior class was absolutely crushed by it," Milano said. "These kids I have now were teammates. Obviously, they weren't in the same class, but they watched those kids struggle with that. And then they watched them pull themselves back together and fight and fight and fight."
Milano admitted that there's no manual on how to help his team heal from the tragic loss of their friend. But together, the group rose from their pain.
"I can't take credit for that. I always say I have great kids. Downingtown football kids are special kids. We just tried to support them through all of that," Milano said.
West found success through adversity, with Milano and his dedicated coaching staff leading the way.
With the Ches-Mont National Division title in their clutches, West is inching towards that best West ever goal. Milano and his team look to channel their current dominance into a postseason run, and it all starts on Friday.
"The 2019 team set the bar pretty high; they went 13-2 and went to the Eastern final. So that's the standard. We hold that out there. We talk about it. We know it's one step at a time, and we take our first step into the playoffs this Friday night against Conestoga."