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John Franco sculpts another masterpiece for successful 2003 Golden Eagle football season

In 10 years at Tyrone Area High School, John Franco has become the Michelangelo of football coaches in central Pennsylvania.
Since 1994, he has sculpted a program rarely able to compete and desperate to fill the stands into a statewide power regularly ranked among Pennsylvania’s top 10 Class AA schools. Six of his 10 campaigns have ended with 10-win seasons and District 6 championships and in 2003 he won his 100th game with the Golden Eagles, giving him a tidy average of 10 wins per season in Tyrone.
In the five seasons before Franco arrived on the scene, the Eagles had compiled a 9-40 record, at one point absorbing a school worst 19 consecutive losses, and what fan support there was was often evidenced by the faint sound of coughing that echoed from the stands across the turf of Gray Memorial Field.
Now, as long as football is played in the borough, Franco will be remembered much like the late Dr. Albert Bowen, who in 1921 reintroduced football into Tyrone after a 20-year ban of the sport: He’s the man who brought football back to Tyrone, as well as its first ever PIAA championship.
But for all of his work, Franco often feels more like Dr. Frankenstein than the great artist of the Italian Renaissance because with all of his teams’ successes have come enormous expectations.
The 2003 Golden Eagles were a case in point. With all of its backfield intact from a playoff run the year before, and with a couple of hefty lineman returning, as well, Tyrone was expected to win games and compete for championships.
It was a proposition easier said than done, particularly when you consider that most of the Eagles’ returning talent was in the junior and sophomore classes, their starting quarterback of two seasons had graduated, and as many as 12 players would be starting varsity football games for the first time in their careers.
But the Eagles lived up to their great potential and fulfilled the community’s expectations, finishing 11-2 with the school’s seventh District championship.
“It’s tough to deal with big community expectations in high school football because each team is unique,” Franco said. “College and pro football is one thing, but in high school, expectations take away from the joy of winning because you work so hard to accomplish something and people say, well you have a lot of people back – we expect you to win.”
The challenge now is tempering those expectations for another season – one in which Tyrone will truly return a load of seasoned talent that now has been to the mountain top.
“Just because people are returning doesn’t mean we are automatically going to win football games,” Franco said. “I haven’t seen a team win yet just because they returned players. A lot of them end up losing. The key for us now is that we’ve been there before and we know how much work is involved. We won’t come
in saying it’s going to be a cakewalk. Instead, we’ll do the opposite. We know just how hard it will be. That’s what you hope to get from a successful run with a team that is young.”
If that is indeed a lesson the Eagles took with them from an 11-win season that saw them win 10 straight games from Week 3 through Week 12, there’s every reason to believe that Tyrone will have one of the formidable programs in central Pennsylvania. The Eagles will return 20 letter-winners and 13 players who saw starting action throughout the 2003 season.
They will also return a large and talented senior class, something that hasn’t happened at Tyrone since 2000.
But for all of the talent and experience Tyrone will have back, Franco is concerned with filling the holes left by its six-player graduating class of 2003, of which only four saw significant varsity action.
That class includes Max Soellner, who along with making the Associated Press All-State second team was a two-way first team all-Big 8 all star; Tommy Crowl, who likewise was a Big 8 first-teamer on both sides of the ball; three-year starting tackle Justin Clark – another Big 8 first team selection; and defensive back Jerry Wilson, whose heady play in the secondary landed him a spot on the all-Big 8 second team.
While the group represents just four players and seven positions from a total of 22, Franco said replacing them will be the key to starting on the right foot in 2004.
It starts on the defensive side of the ball, where Soellner (13) and Clark (6.5) combined on nearly 20 quarterback sacks and constantly put pressure on opposing offenses from the perimeter.
“Our defensive end play was better than any I had seen in recent years,” said Franco. “People are going to have to step up now and do what they did. We’re also going to need an explosive, big-play guy like Crowl, and a cerebral guy like Jason Wilson. There are a lot of roles and holes to fill.”
There may also be enough talent to keep in the Eagles going while suitable replacements are sought. Of Tyrone’s 4,006 total yards gained in 2003, 82 percent of it is returning, led by junior Brice Mertiff, who rushed for the fifth-best single season total in school history in his second year as the Eagles’ tailback. His 1,523 yards place him just behind Marcus Owen’s junior season total of 1995 (1,553) and just ahead of Jesse Jones’ sophomore total from 1998 (1,517).
Joining him in the backfield one more time will be classmate Ben Gummo, who gained 671 yards on the ground in 2003, along with kicking five field goals, scoring nine touchdowns, converting on 36 extra points and catching 12 passes for 141 yards.
Tyrone will also start the 2004 season with one set quarterback. The Eagles began last season using the rotation of junior Brandon Maceno and sophomore Leonard Wilson. Wilson became the No. 1 quarterback in Week 3 against Lewistown, and steadily improved week by week, eventually finishing with 956 yards passing and 10 touchdowns while completing 49.2 percent of his passes (65-for-132).
Wilson threw for 186 yards and four touchdowns in a first-round playoff game against United, highlighting a brilliant stretch run in which he passed for 625 yards over the final six games.
“Leonard came along when we needed him most,” said Franco. “At the beginning of the season, I thought that if we were going to compete for a District 6 championship our passing game would have to catch up to our running game by the end of the year. He still has a lot to improve on, but I know he will.”
Wilson, Gummo and Mertiff will also have the luxury of what could be a dominant offensive line. Center Terry Tate returns, as do tackles Ralph VanAllman and Ronnie Miller, guard Jake Houck and tight end Tad Chamberlain.
VanAllman, Miller, Tate and Chamberlain also return on the defensive line, along with Gummo (LB), Doug Morrow (DE), Brice Mertiff (DB), and Maceno (LB-DB). They were all key ingredients in a group that last season allowed just one team to gain more than 100 yards rushing until the final game of the season.
Tate earned a spot on the AP All-State second team for his effort, which included 3.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. As a unit, Tyrone’s defense forced 29 turnovers, allowing the Eagles’ to finish plus-13 in the turnover ratio.
That was something Franco hoped for as the season began, but wasn’t sure he would get after watching his team turn the ball over four times in a 23-20 overtime loss to Huntingdon in Week Two in a game Tyrone thoroughly dominated from start to finish.
Watching the maturation process of a group of young players over 13 games was part of what made 2003 fun for Franco.
“Each game was a new experience,” Franco said. “You never knew what to expect. It was nice to see their growth, and that is a tribute to a bunch of young guys who were open to learning and doing what was expected of them.”