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Nothing has come easy for the Golden Eagles football team this season

Starting with a thinly manned summer camp that saw starting offensive lineman Justin Clark go down with a shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup for three games, Tyrone has had to hurdle obstacle after obstacle.
There was the challenge of starting two sophomores on the line and two in the offensive backfield. There was tight end Dan Grazier’s broken leg – an injury the senior captain may still recover from in time for the playoffs. There were the seven turnovers against Pius X, leading to a four-point loss after the Eagles had thoroughly dominated the Class A power.
At 5-3, everything Tyrone has earned, it has done so the hard way.
So it should come as no surprise that in order for the Eagles to lock up a home game in the upcoming District 5-6 AA playoffs they’ll have to go through a Punxsutawney team enjoying the program’s best season in 10 years.
And they will have to do so nearly two hours from home at Jeff M. LeMarca Stadium in Punsutawney tomorrow at 7 p.m.
“This is the best team they’ve had there since 1991-92,” said Tyrone coach John Franco. “We competed against them often when I was at Altoona and they always have a lot of tough kids. I have a lot of respect for them.”
The ‘Chucks at 5-3 have already assured themselves a spot in the District 9-AAA playoffs and feature the District’s leading passer in senior Joe Martin, a four-year starter who has already thrown for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns.
They’ve also got a chip on their shoulder after losing three straight to the Golden Eagles by an average margin of 45-8 since the series began in 1999.
“In years past, you could almost mark this game as a win but that is certainly not the case this season,” said Franco. “They have the same record as us and they have a really nice football team.”
Punxsy began the season 5-1 before dropping its last two games, including a 28-21 loss last Friday to rival Brookville. The Eagles meanwhile, started off 0-2 for the second straight season, but have since ripped of wins in six of their last seven games and currently sit in fifth place in the Class AA rankings, just 10 points behind Ligonier Valley.
Their entrance in the post-season was guaranteed last week when they upset 5-1 Indian Valley 34-14 at Mitchell Field, but now Tyrone would like nothing more to bring a playoff game to Gray Veterans Memorial Field for the first time in two seasons.
“We want to make a good run in the post-season,” said Franco. “The kids have been very upbeat and you can see them feeling better each week. We’re starting to come together.”
And they’re doing do at just the right time. With the playoffs just eight days away, Tyrone is beginning to consistently show the offensive balance that has been the trademark of Eagle teams under Franco. Add to that a defense that against the Warriors held in check an offense that had been averaging five touchdowns and nearly 400 yards per game.
“We played the best defensive game against Indian Valley that we’ve played here in two years,” said Franco. “The defense is really coming together. Sometimes I look out and I see us playing two sophomores (Ben Gummo and Brandon Maceno) and a freshman (Brinton Mingle) at linebacker and I think that’s great for the future but I can’t believe we have as many young kids doing as well as they are.”
Franco said the ladder kept in the team’s locker room since 1999 – used to symbolize upcoming opponents and to focus players on only the next game – has been a valuable tool considering the team’s youth and the complexion of an up-and-down season.
“It symbolizes taking the season one play and one game at a time,” he said. “This year we’ve really had to stress it because we’ve had to take things slowly. For us to be successful, we’ve got to keep following game by game and if we can do that, the sky is the limit.”
Closing in on Records
Eagle seniors Tyler Mertiff and Aaron Jeffries are quietly approaching some hallowed team records.
Through eight games, Jeffries has caught 40 passes for 737 yards and nine touchdowns, leaving him just 73 yards shy of the TAHS school record of 810 yards receiving set by Steve Johnson in 1999 when the Eagles finished the season 15-0, winning the PIAA Class AA championship.
Mertiff, meanwhile, has completed 80 of 149 passes (53 percent) for 1,270 yards and 10 touchdowns. He needs just 138 yards to match Brandon Hoover’s single-season record of 1,408 in 1999 and six more touchdown passes to match Hoover’s 16 from the same season.
What’s been remarkable is how quickly the duo has neared the milestones. Johnson missed two game in 1999 with a hamstring injury, leaving him with 13 game to set the current receiving record. Hoover played in all 15.
Mertiff is averaging 158 yards passing per game, while Jeffries is averaging 92 yards receiving per game, making tomorrow’s game against Punxsy compelling for more than just its playoff implications.
Budding Star
Franco isn’t ready to speak at length on the record about sophomore running back Brice Mertiff.
After the rookie rushed for 192 yards and three touchdowns last week against Indian Valley, the most Franco would offer was that “he’s getting better every week.”
The veteran coach’s reluctance to over-do his praise for a sophomore is understandable, but Mertiff’s numbers are undeniably impressive.
To date, Brice Mertiff leads the team in rushing with 709 yards on 117 carries and has now rushed for more than 175 yards in each of his last two games. His 192 against Valley were the most for a Tyrone sophomore since Jesse Jones gained 257 yards on 27 carries against Shenandoah Valley on October 30, 1998.
Still, in front of every great rushing performance is a solid line, and Franco is quick to credit Tyrone’s ever-meshing offensive line for the emergence of the Tyrone running attack, which over the last two games has averaged 248 yards per game.
“No matter what level of football you’re talking about, they key to a team is the offensive line,” said Franco. “Even more so than the defense. It’s the core of the team and ours is starting to come together. It’s happening at the right time.”
Spreading It Around
While the ‘Chucks’ running game doesn’t have the same big-play ability of the Eagles’ – they average just 151 yards on the ground per game – Punxsy has done well this season to incorporate a platoon system to complement Martin’s passing acumen.
Dustin Guidash leads Punxsy with 382 yards and four touchdowns and Zach has totaled 351. Martin has chipped in 257.
Injury Report
The Eagles are “as healthy as we have been all season,” according to coach John Franco, who reported no serious injuries for the Punxsutawney game.
The best news for the Eagles on the injury front this week was the return to practice of Grazier, who broke his the fibula in his left leg against Bellefonte in Week 4. Grazier, who dressed for the Valley game last Friday, participated in practice but is still not near 100 percent according to Franco.
Still, his return keeps him on schedule to return for the start of the playoffs next weekend – a goal set by Grazier following his injury against the Raiders.