DUNKIRK — Sometimes the hard times make it easier to appreciate the better ones when they come back around.

Paul Haley’s career varsity coaching record still has some catching up to do thanks to those hard times, when he took over a Salamanca football program with little varsity experience entering the 2015 season. It took until Week 8 of the 2016 season for the Warriors to win under Haley as they defeated Eden/North Collins in the Chuck Funke Memorial Bowl semifinals, 26-14. Two years later, the Warriors have shown a level of competitiveness with a 5-4 season in 2017 followed by 4-5 this year ending with a 38-7 loss to Maple Grove on Friday in the Section 6 Class D semifinals.

The Warriors undoubtedly played a tougher schedule this fall in the trimmed-down Class D division, playing both Clymer/Sherman/Panama and Maple Grove twice along with strong non-league opponents Franklinville/Ellicottville. Salamanca finished with two tight wins over neighboring Cattaraugus-Little Valley, an upset of Olean and a regular season finale victory over Maple Grove on a last-minute field goal.

“With the schedule we had, they played tough,” Haley said after the playoff loss to Maple Grove. “We started the year a little slow (1-3) but we got on a nice roll at the end.

“Obviously this isn’t the way we wanted to finish, where we wanted to finish, but these kids have nothing to hang their hat off. These are my boys for four years, they’ve been together through thick and thin. With the schedule we had and the games that we came out and won, this is something they’ll remember for a long time.”

Salamanca will lose 17 seniors next season, several of whom played varsity as freshman in Haley’s first year. With a willingness to play as freshmen or sophomores, the Warriors avoided having to merge with a nearby district for football, like many schools in the area have.

“There’s no slash after Salamanca right now because of these kids,” Haley said. “These kids could have went anywhere or we could have had Salamanca-slash-something, but we’re never going to have a slash after Salamanca. As long as I’m here, we’re going to be fighting until the end and that’s what these kids did.”

Haley credits seniors like running back/linebacker Ira John and wide receiver/safety Tyler Hedlund for the turnaround.

“They turned this program around,” he said. “Ira, Tyler, these kids have been starting for four years probably before they should have been. We took away some developmental time for them. They poured it all out there. We’ll be back next year and we’ll build on what we’ve got next year.”

Haley pointed to contributors like freshmen linemen Kody Shinners, a starter all year, and Trey Turner, who stepped up at center; sophomore quarterback Lucas McKenna and his brother Jarrett, a junior; and sophomore Ezra and junior Kawliga Stahlman as players who he’ll look to continue what players like John and Hedlund started.

“They’ve seen the example these kids set and now they know what they’ve got to do. It starts in the offseason and we had a good offseason. A lot of the younger kids were there and we’ve got our cornerstone players coming up now.

“We’ve got a great core coming and if we have a good offseason, we’ll be in the mix of things.”

(Salamanca Press sports editor Sam Wilson may be contacted at samwilsonsp@gmail.com)