Golden Eagles face Penns Valley in must-win situation for Rams

Tyrone coach John Franco knows exactly where the Penns Valley Rams are coming from this week.
It wasn’t long ago that the Eagles were facing the same kind of do-or-die situation, in which a loss could mean the end to any aspirations of post-season redemption. Just two seasons ago, Tyrone needed to win its regular-season finale against Punxsutawney to earn an 8-seed in the District 6-AA playoffs.
They got it, and continued a stretch of playoff qualification that this year has reached nine straight seasons.
But the win required an effort greater than the run-of-the-mill regular season ender. In essence, the playoffs began with that game.
The same holds true for Penns Valley tonight.
At 4-4, the Rams have 460 points and hold the eighth and final spot in the Class AA playoffs. Nipping at their heels is Ligonier Valley, Tyrone’s first-round opponent last season, with 450 and United.
A Ram loss, combined with an upset win by Ligonier Valley over Northern Cambria would bring Penns Valley’s season to an end in a hurry.
However, the push towards the post-season isn’t something the Rams have focused on this week. In fact, according to Valley coach Martin Tobias, it hasn’t even been discussed.
“If it happens, great,” said Tobias. “We’re focused on improving every week and playing a good game. It may be in the back of some of the players’ minds, but we’ve been up and down all season. It certainly hasn’t been the kind of season we feel we could have had, so our attention is on week-by-week getting better.”
Ironically, it’s the Eagles who are viewing this game as a playoff game one week early, and not only because the Rams would be Tyrone’s first-round opponent should they qualify. Franco said that from day one the Eagles set a goal of being the District’s top seed, and a win tonight would lock that firmly into place.
“That was one of our big goals,” said Franco. “After being an 8-seed two years ago and four last year, we wanted that top seed so we could control our own playoff destiny.
“They need a win to assure themselves of a playoff spot and in a way that puts our kids at a bit of a disadvantage. For them it’s almost like making that one last stand. We know the feeling. We’ll definitely see a better team than if they had already made the playoffs and were just playing out the schedule until they began.”
Despite all of the hype over Tyrone’s powerful running game, led by junior Brice Mertiff, who just last week cracked the thousand-yard mark for the season, the Eagles have earned their ninth consecutive playoff berth on the strength of their defense. They’re surrendering just 164 yards per game, a mere 63 of which comes on the ground.
Tyrone’s miserly defense will be challenged this week by a Valley offense that rolled up nearly 500 yards last week alone in a 55-18 rout of Donegal.
It’ led by running backs Curt Royer and Evan Leitch, a rushing tandem that has shown a penchant for big games. Leitch leads the team with over 700 yards while Royer has more than 500.
“We’re fortunate to have two quality running backs,” said Tobias. “They’re different in what they bring to the table, but they have been great to coach and work with.”
Meanwhile, quarterback Todd Bumgardner has completed 47 of 103 passes for more than 600 yards, more than enough to provide a challenge for a Tyrone secondary that has been burnt this season for more than 100 yards per game.
“To say that we’ve got to try to do this or that against Tyrone, we’re going to try a lot of things and stick with what works,” said Tobias. “Tyrone doesn’t give up too many yards running the ball. Coach Franco and his staff do a great job of preparing their kids to play.”
Tyrone and Valley haven’t played in four seasons but they share common opponents in Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellefonte, Bellwood-Antis and Bishop Guilfoyle. Tyrone went a combined 4-0 against those teams, while Penns Valley was 1-3, defeating Bellefonte 32-20 in Week 1.
Franco has been especially pleased with his team’s performance on special teams, where he feels coverage, blocking and snaps have been excellent.
They were never any better than they were a week ago in Tyrone’s 28-8 win over Indian Valley. Kicker Ben Gummo made all four of his PAT kicks, the Eagles recovered a fumble on a kickoff and the Warriors’ average starting field position following a kickoff was their own 29.
The special teams performance was highlighted by senior Tommy Crowl’s 85-yard punt return in the second quarter that made it 14-0. It was the Eagles’ first return of a kick for a score since Crowl went 85 yards for a score against Forest Hills in the last year’s District 6-AA semifinals.
“Our kicking teams have been outstanding in doing the little things,” said Franco.
Despite their 4-4 record, the Rams possess one of the most productive offenses in the area at over 300 yards per game. Last week alone, against Donegal, Valley totaled 485 yards, 384 of which came on the ground. Both Royer and Leitch went over 100 yards and Leitch scored four touchdowns.
Grid Tidbits: Tyrone hasn’t lost a regular-season finale since 1995, when it fell to Indian Valley 13-7….the Eagles are 2-0 all-time against Penns Valley, with their last win coming in the 1999 District 6-AA semifinals, 42-6 ….tomorrow is Senior Night….Family affair-Penns Valley lineman Mattthew Vonada is a first cousin to the Eagles senior wide receiver/defensive back Jason Wilson.