The perks of earning a No. 1 seed are usually pretty sweet.
A couple of home games. An inside track to the District championship game. Most likely an easier-than-normal first round game.
But when you look at Tyrone’s reward for earning the top seed in the District 5-6 AA playoffs, it looks like the Golden Eagles – winners of the last two championships – got the booby prize. That’s because in a Double-A bracket that coach John Franco says is the toughest he’s seen since he’s been at Tyrone, the first team to come knocking tomorrow at Gray Veterans Memorial Field is No. 8 Penn Cambria, a 6-3 school out of the Laurel Highlands Conference that is much stronger than its record might indicate.
“We pushed so hard to get the No. 1 seed, and our reward for it was we were placed in one of the toughest brackets,” said Franco, who is guiding Tyrone into the playoffs for the 11th straight season. “Penn Cambria is very good defensively, and better than some of the teams we’ve played.”
Coming off a 1-8 season, the Panthers began 2005 5-1 before losing in consecutive weeks to Forest Hills and Bishop Carroll, two teams with one loss between them. The Rangers are the second seed in AA, while Carroll is back in its perennial position as the top seed in A. Cambria’s other loss came in Week 4, 28-12 to Bedford, the 4 seed in AA.
One big reason for the turnaround has been the attitude instilled by coach Ernie Fetzer, who brought 35 years of coaching experience with him this season when he accepted the Penn Cambria job. Fetzer had already won over 125 games in his career, which included 20 seasons as a head coach – most notably at Westmont Hilltop – and he revamped the Panthers’ program starting with expectations.
“When you have high expectations of your kids, and when you demand a lot from them, you’ll have success,” he said. “You’re always fortunate, too, when you have good enough talent, but you have to demand a lot from them. Our kids have responded pretty well.”
Whether that will be enough against Tyrone, which wrapped up its ninth undefeated regular season last week, is another question, and Fetzer is guarding against his players adopting a happy-to-be-here attitude.
“That’s something you fight everyday,” he said. “As much as I may believe as a coach that we can battle with anyone, the tough job is to sell that to the kids. Tyrone has a great tradition, and they carry a mystique that we have to fight to get over.”
But while Fetzer is hoping the Panthers aren’t content in simply making the postseason, the Eagles are ecstatic to be there. Since defeating Bellefonte 41-6 in Week 6 in a clash of unbeatens, Tyrone has played three teams with a combined 9-18 record and zero playoff aspirations. The Eagles won those games by an average of 40-6.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a new excitement in the air,” Franco said. “This is what we’ve been aiming for, and we’re ready to go.”
Franco said the Eagles enter this year’s playoffs feeling that they have something to prove. The team was expected to struggle through growing pains for part of the season after losing most of the offensive firepower from a team that went 12-2 and advanced to the PIAA Western Finals in 2004.
However, that hasn’t been the case. Tyrone has dominated its opposition like it has at no other time since its state championship season in 1999, winning by an average 31 points per game. The depth of talent at all the skill positions is as good as its been this decade, and the defensive numbers have already surpassed that of last year’s squad, which featured PFN Defensive Player of the Year Terry Tate.
Now, according to Franco, the Eagles would like to be accorded the respect given to some of the other great teams from Tyrone.
“This team has a bit of a chip on its shoulder,” said Franco. “They want to prove they belong up there with some of those other teams.”
One sure way to do that would be to complete the program’s second District championship three-peat, but before the Eagles can think about that they have to deal with Cambria, which has impressed Franco with its quickness on defense and its ability to run the ball inside on offense.
The Panthers’ running attack is led by fullback Matt Holsberger, who has gained 552 yards on 107 carries. He’s complemented by running back Andrew Choros, another 500-yard rusher who also averages nearly 24 yards per attempt on kick returns.
Holsberger also leads the charge on defense from his inside linebacker position, along with Justin Long. The tandem is responsible for over 180 total tackles, including 13 behind the line of scrimmage.
“They get to the ball well, and their two inside linebackers are excellent,” Franco said. “That’s going to be a challenge.”
But it’s the kind of challenge Tyrone enjoys. The Eagles have seen all kinds of schemes this season to limit their powerful running attack, but the results have been squarely in favor of Tyrone. With teams stacking 8 and 9 players in the box, quarterback Leonard Wilson is having the best year of his three-year career, completing 69 of 105 passes for 1,121 yards and 13 touchdowns.
And despite the opposition’s preoccupation with limiting Tyrone’s running game, Brinton Mingle still finds himself on the cusp of a 1,000-yard season, needing only 67 yards to reach the plateau. Both Tyler Gillmen (55 carries, 458 yards) and Johnny Franco (45 carries, 361 yards) have also been effective in Tyrone’s run game, making it difficult for teams to gang up on any one dimension of the Eagles’ offense, or any one player.
“We have much better balance than we have had in some past years,” Franco said. “We’ve come along pretty well each week, but we’re still developing. And you need to be able to have balance when you’re in the playoffs.”
Fetzer understands how explosive the Eagles can be when they have all facets of their game working, and that’s why he feels his best defense may be a ball-controlled offense to keep Tyrone’s skill players off the field.
“To be honest, that’s necessary against a team the caliber of Tyrone,” said Fetzer. “We would like to keep our offense on the field, but that’s easy to say. They have so much talent on defense that it makes it difficult.”
FAMILIARITY BREEDS RESPECT
Tomorrow’s game will mark the fourth time in the last 10 years that Fetzer and Franco have gone head-to-head in the playoffs, and in that time both coaches have grown in respect for each other and their programs.
“Franco and I go way back, and I can’t say enough about the success Tyrone has had,” Fetzer said. “We had some good teams at Westmont, and whenever we played Tyrone, there was always a lot of respect, and both teams played hard.”
“Ernie Fetzer is one of the excellent high school coaches in our area,” said Franco. “He always brings a fine program to the table.”
Franco has won the three previous meetings with Fetzer, all of which came in District semifinal or final games when he coached Westmont Hilltop. His most recent win over Fezter came in 2000, when Tyrone defeated Westy 14-0 in Westmont in the a District semifinal game that featured Doug Roseberry – now a senior special teams player at Pitt – and Jim Kanuch – a senior receiver Penn State.
Neither Tyrone nor Penn Cambria had an easy road through the regular season, with each team facing a schedule filled with playoff contenders.
Tyrone, in fact, faced three postseason qualifiers in the first three weeks of the season in Bellwood-Antis (A), Huntingdon (AAA) and Lewistown (AAA), not to mention the Week 6 showdown against Bellefonte, the No. 1 seed in AAA.
“(The regular season) has given us good competition and taught us to rise to the occasion,” said Franco. “But now it’s a new season and those nine wins don’t mean anything anymore. Everybody’s even at 0-0.”
Meanwhile, Penn Cambria, along with its games against Bedford, Forest Hills and Bishop Carroll, faced AAA contender and defending champion Johnstown in Week 2.
“I think it’s pretty special to make it in Class A and AA in this area because it’s so competitive,” said Fetzer. “I’m proud that we earned our way in by winning games.”
The perks of earning a No. 1 seed are usually pretty sweet.