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Discovering unity amid difference; Turning two teams into one -- Barker/Roy-Hart -- 'a wonderful experience'

Just past a blinking stoplight on a dark road in the middle of the village, the sounds of shoulder pads colliding and rowdy football fans flowed out of the doors of the Barker Fire Hall.

Inside the building, about 150 members of the community fixed their eyes on a large projector screen showing the Barker/Roy-Hart football team's season highlights at the end-of-the-year banquet.

The scene was in stark contrast to one from four months earlier. During their lunch break on the first day of practice in August, the Barker/Roy-Hart football team split up and sat at different tables inside the Barker Middle School gymnasium. At one table were the Roy-Hart players, at another, the Barker players.

At the banquet Dec. 12, players from both schools shared the same tables at the Barker Fire Hall, joked about being rivals again for basketball season, and thought about how far they had come since that first day of practice.

"It was kind of awkward at first," said Brad Bobbitt, junior wide receiver from Roy-Hart.

"The first few weeks, I couldn't stand [Austin Blackley]," said senior quarterback Connor Baker, also from Roy-Hart.

Austin, a senior running back from Barker, found entertainment in throwing things at the Roy-Hart players during lunchtime. It was all in good fun, he said, but the Roy-Hart players didn't get the joke.

Eventually, though, the chemistry the players found on the field translated into friendships off it.

"When we start playing, you don't think about it," Brad said. "You just get going. After the first week, we meshed."

After the 2010 season, the Barker and Roy-Hart schools made the decision to combine their football teams to overcome declining enrollment and financial struggles in both schools' programs.

Before the teams joined forces this season, their programs had a combined record last year of 3-11. Together, they went 7-0 in Class A of Section V this season and were a top seed in the playoffs.

"Getting to beat the teams that crushed us in the past was great," said senior wide receiver Josh Haight of Barker.

"I would've never imagined it," Coach Bill Bruning said. "The kids got along great. It has been a wonderful experience not only for me as a coach, but for the kids, also."

Bruning said that the coaches didn't work on any team-building exercises in practice and that the players just seemed to come together on their own.

"My expectations were just to get better as a football team, and everything will take care of itself, like it has," he said.

At the beginning of the season, Josh said, he had good reason to talk a little smack to one of his Roy-Hart teammates. The previous year, during the preseason scrimmage between Roy-Hart and Barker, Josh, who played starting quarterback for Barker, suffered an ankle injury that caused him to miss the majority of the season.

"In our scrimmage, we played [Roy-Hart], and a kid named Judd Jamieson broke my ankle," Josh said. "I planted weird in the grass, and I was going forward when he hit me. It was a huge sack."

Josh wasn't sure what kind of relationship the two would have when it came time to put on the same uniform, but it didn't take more than a week before they were friends.

"The first week of training camp, I had to talk trash to him," Josh said. "Now we're pretty good friends. We joke around all the time with each other."

Bruning said he remembers one night during the season when it became clear to him that his players had become more than just teammates.

One of his players, Roy-Hart junior Tucker Ruhlen, told Bruning that he had decided to skip the homecoming dance at Roy-Hart.

"I asked him what he was doing instead, and he said he was going to hang out with the Barker kids. I was like, 'Wow,' " Bruning said.

You would have thought the players grew up together if you saw them every day during practice and at games, said Bruning, and Brad agreed.

"There were arguments and stuff in practice, but it was never Barker versus Roy-Hart," Brad said. "It never felt like we were two different schools. If anything, it was like we were from the same school."

The community seemed to embrace the merger, as well.

"Football was big before in both towns, but it was just never good," Brad said. "We were acknowledged more in school, and fans cheered for kids from different schools."

"It was crazy," said Josh, who plans to continue his football career in college next year at St. John Fisher or Cortland State. "We had a lot of people at all our games. It pumped you up and got you to play a lot harder."

The football season may be over, but the Barker/Roy-Hart team captains said you wouldn't know it.

"It doesn't really feel like the season is over because we've had parties and we're still together," Brad said.

Josh said he has even been to two of the Roy-Hart basketball team's games.

The players insisted that it's back to the rivalry for hoops season, and they talked about the Jan. 20 Barker-versus-Roy-Hart matchup as if it were Christmas morning.

"I'm looking forward to it," Josh said. "A lot of people are going to it. It's crazy. The gym gets packed."

They'll likely be some trash talking, but this time they'll have more ammunition -- a whole season's worth.