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Last Hurrah For Big 8 Conference Was A Good One

You couldn’t ask much more from the Big 8 Conference in its last go-round in current form.
The 31-year old league will expand to 12 teams in two divisions next fall and take on the name Mountain Athletic Football Conference. But for one last time in 2003, it was the Big 8, and it showed it still had its zing after all these years.
The final year of the Big 8 saw resurrections, records and rebounds. Two of the conference’s seven teams earned No. 1 seedings in the District 6 playoffs, four qualified for the postseason, and three are still playing as Week 11 draws to a close.
Here’s a look at the highlights of the final season of the Big 8 football conference.
Top 3 Games
1. None touched the down-to-the wire gut-check in Week 2 between Tyrone and Huntingdon, who finished 1-2 in the conference standings. Tyrone jumped to a 10-0 lead before Huntingdon, like a prize fighter battling back from an early knockdown, rallied to go up 14-13 at halftime.
The Eagles led by seven late until Huntingdon rallied to tie the game with eight seconds left before winning in overtime on a 34-yard field goal by Geoff Kozak.
Tyrone outgained the ‘Cats by nearly 100 yards, but was never able to sustain a time-consuming drive in the second half, turning the ball over three times. Huntingdon scored twice on broken plays, including a 36-yard scramble for a score by Kozak, who played most of the game with a slight concussion.
The game ultimately became the conference championship, played in September. Huntingdon went 6-0 in the Big 8, while Tyrone finished 5-1.
2. Philipsburg-Osceola’s come-from-behind win over Bellefonte in Week 2 signified a new era in Mountie football. P-O trailed 14-0 in the first half before rallying to tie the game on two runs by Adam White in the fourth quarter.
Ryan Dobo intercepted Bellefonte quarterback Matt Mundy on the Raiders’ next series, setting up the Mounties’ game-winning drive. It went 62 yards in 12 plays to the Bellefonte nine-yard line, where Lou LaFuria nailed the go-ahead field goal from 27 yards out with just 27 seconds remaining.
It was the start of something Big for P-O, which went on to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 1995. It was the start of a long season for the Raiders, who lost their next four games and finished 3-7.
3. In a conference never short on rivalry games, there’s something special about the Curtain Bowl between Bellefonte and Bald Eagle Area, two natural rivals separated by just seven miles.
It’s a game that both communities take special pride in celebrating. The problem is, both teams are normally playing for just pride by the time the Week 9 showdown comes around.
It didn’t matter this season. Bellefonte trailed the Eagles 13-0 after the first quarter, closed within 13-8 at halftime, and then exploded for 24 third-quarter points to win 32-25. After forcing a second-quarter safety, the Raiders ripped off four unanswered scores to claim the lead and never looked back.
Josh Mundy and Nate Carson each scored twice for Bellefonte, including an 89-yard kickoff return by Carson in the fourth quarter after BEA had cut the lead to 24-19.
Top Performer
Three stand out. For consistency, few were better than Tyrone Brice Mertiff and P-O’s White. No Big 8 team held Mertiff under 100 yards rushing, and White scored every week in Big 8 play. Both rushed for over 1,000 yards and were named to the conference’s 1st team all-star squad.
The picture changes a bit when Huntingdon quarterback Geoff Kozak is thrown into the mix. The senior signal-caller passed for over 1,000 yards and on occasion pushed his team to victory through sheer will.
Money Player
Kozak’s best moments were ones when the game was on the line. While the argument for top performer in the Big 8 is debatable, the argument over who to take in a tie game with 80 yards to go is not.
Kozak began the season making plays. It was his pass deflection in the closing moments of a 17-15 win over Laurel Highlands that prevented a two-point conversion in Week 1 and got the ‘Cats rolling. He scrambled and passed for touchdowns in Week 2 against Tyrone, and then coolly kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime. In Week 9 against non-conference rival Hollidaysburg, he kicked a 17-yard field goal with two minutes left to secure the ‘Cats unbeaten season.
As far as clutch players go, the list of those on the same level as Kozak in the 31-year history of the Big 8 is short.
Comeback Team of the Year
Welcome back Philipsburg-Osceola.
The Mounties were a force in the Big 8 in the late 1980s and challenged again briefly in the mid-90s, but changing-coachesand pathetically weak offensive schemes drained what had been a proud program.
Jeff Vroman took over last year and made the Mounties competitive, though it wasn’t reflected in their 2-8 record.
But this season, beginning with their comeback win over Bellefonte, things began to change at P-O. The Mounties ended conference play 4-3 (third place), qualified for the playoffs for the first time in eight season, and won the program’s first-ever District level playoff game a week ago.
While the Mounties lost to conference powers Huntingdon and Tyrone by a combined 35 points, they beat the teams they were supposed to, and that made a world of difference.
Team of the Year
Coach Jim Zauzig had the Huntingdon Bearcats believing early that they were a team of destiny, that the final Big 8 Conference title was rightfully theirs, and that they were a program worthy of being mentioned among the best in Pennsylvania history.
The ‘Cats bought into what their inspirational leader was saying, and through adversity and injury, made good on all of his claims.
Huntingdon went 6-0 in conference to capture the school’s 10th Big 8 championship, tying Tyrone with three consecutive outright conference titles. Along the way, the ‘Cats became only the 10th program in Pennsylvania history to win 600 games.
They then finished the regular season unbeaten, earned the No. 1 seed in Class AAA, and are now one game away from the school’s fifth District championship. All that stands in the way of Huntingdon is Johnstown in this weekend’s District 6-AAA finals.