Sports Tyrone Daily Herald Archives

Pigskin Preview: Golden Eagles look to be frontrunners for in MAFC; P-O, Dragons push Tyrone for league championship

The Mountain Athletic Conferences was forced to make some major changes in the off-season in a last gasp for life heading into the 2007 football season.
The multi-tiered all-sports league has fielded a two-division football conference for three seasons, but the departure last season of Bishop Guilfoyle, which moved to the Laurel Highlands Conference, along with the exit next season of Bellwood-Antis, which moves to a newly aligned Inter-County Conference, were the initial pangs of a conference in ruins.
Central stepped in to replace Guilfoyle in the small school Nittany Division, and rejoin its more natural rivals left over from the former Big 8 Conference. Lewistown was realigned from the large school Seven Mountains Division into the Nittany, and Hollidaysburg jetted from the Mid-Penn League to fill the void left by the Panthers’ switch.
And with all of those changes, the future of the league remains in doubt.
But in a season shrouded in uncertainty, there is one constant to add some stability to a conference teetering on ever wobbly legs: the Tyrone Golden Eagles, which have captured at least a share of the first three MAC Nittany Division titles, will rule their division once more.
There will be contenders and rumors of contenders over the first six weeks of the season, but when the brightness of early September rolls into the rain and puddles of late October, Tyrone will stand alone with its ninth conference championship under coach John Franco.
Here’s why:
Start at the top. No coach has proven himself more capable of handling the peaks and valleys of a small school football season quite as well as Franco, who has drilled his players to perform at an emotional pitch whether the opponent is a 6-0 contender or an 0-8 cellar dweller. In three seasons competing in the Nittany Division, the Golden Eagles have lost only once, in September 2004, when Philipsburg-Osceola – with its best team in decades – upset Tyrone 7-6 at Memorial Field.
In that three-year span, Tyrone has outscored its opponents in 15 conference games 486-106, an average of 32.4-7 each time out. The Eagles have recorded five shutouts in that time, while limiting five other teams to a single score.
The only games during Tyrone’s run of divisional championships that were in doubt late in the fourth quarter were the Eagles’ loss to P-O, which ended with a missed field goal attempt by Ben Gummo, and Tyrone’s 21-14 win over Penns Valley in last year’s Nittany Division finale, which ended with an interception on the Rams’ final possession.
Bellwood-Antis, Tyrone’s closest divisional rival which tied for the top spot in 2004 and was runner-up in both 2005 and 2006, lost to Tyrone 40-13 in 2004, 31-19 in 2005 and 16-0 in 2006.
Bald Eagle Area, Tyrone’s most distant competitor, which finished last all three seasons, fell to Tyrone 35-6, 42-14 and 35-14.
In short, Tyrone will stay on top because the way the Eagles play doesn’t change for the color of their opponents’ jerseys.
The Eagles will also feature the league’s top player in 2007 in senior Johnny Franco, an unparalleled playmaker who in his junior season ran for over 1,600 yards and scored 27 touchdowns. In two seasons as a feature player in Tyrone’s offensive package, Franco has rushed for 2,068 yards, caught 19 passes for 271 yards and scored 39 touchdowns.
Franco has found his way into the endzone in all but one of his 25 games for the Golden Eagles, and the team is 23-1 when Franco scores.
He also threw for a pair of scores in 2006, throwing for 108 yards on two attempts. That could be an ever-pressing statistic in 2007, as Franco could be used at times as the Eagles’ starting signal caller, leading a spread offense modified to utilize his unique abilities.
But even with the uncertainty at the quarterback position – where sophomore Levi Reihart has played well enough to earn the starting job – it’s difficult to bet against the Eagles, who return a good chunk of their offensive line rotation from 2006, as well as three of their top defenders in Franco, defensive back Shayne Tate and linebacker Shane Emigh. Also back is athletic tight end-defensive end Johnny Shaffer, who booted 54 extra points and three field goals last season as Tyrone’s place kicker.
Shaffer was second on the team to All-State tackle Tyler Hoover with 12 tackles for loss and 6 sacks. Tyrone’s defense returns nine players who last season accounted for 35.5 tackles for loss and 13 takeaways.
Tate is poised to step in for departed record-setting receiver Justin Schopp as the Eagles’ top deep threat, as is Brandon Gehret, who stamped his name on the Eagles’ season in 2006 with a 70-yard kickoff return for a score in the District 6 AA semifinals against Forest Hills.
The components are set for another conference championship run for Franco and the Eagles – one that may be their last in the MAC Nittany Division, pending serious off-season repairs for a conference on the brink.
The Others :
Central struggled in the Laurel Highlands Conference following its departure from the Big 8 in 2000, when they found themselves playing Bishop McCort, Bishop Carroll and Forest Hills on a weekly basis.
The Nittany Division is no walk in the park either, having put a contender in the District 6 A and/or AA title games in each year of its existence, but it does provide a bit more opportunity for success for the Dragons, who return five starters from a 2-8 season in 2006.
Of the key players returning for coach A.J. Hoenstine – a former standout quarterback at Central in the early 1990s – are quarterback Chris Kurtz, wide receivers Brad Ritchey and Jordan Hardy, and tight end Shane Cafferty, giving the Dragons the hopes of a strong passing game.
In 2006, Kurtz completed 87 of 155 passes for 1,018 yards and six touchdowns, although his top two receivers – Kody Stiffey and Craig Runk – have both graduated.
If the Dragons can develop a running game – they rushed for only 890 yards a season ago – they could have an immediate impact on the league and place themselves among a strong mid-level group that also includes Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellwood-Antis and Penns Valley.
Of that group, the Rams are the most intriguing team, following a 6-4 finish in 2006 that saw them miss the postseason only by way of their Week 9 loss to Tyrone. Penns Valley returns five starters on both sides of the ball, highlighted by quarterback Matt Johnson, 6-5 specimen who has started since his sophomore season. He has the tools and look of a solid starter, but he’s been plagued by inconsistency.
Johnson has passed for over just over 400 yards in each of his first two seasons and he’s been turnover-prone, as exemplified by a 12-interception season a year ago. It will be Johnson’s ability to limit his mistakes and play up to his potential that determines the Rams’ fate in 2007. Another factor will be Valley’s ability to replace the 1,330-yard void left with by the graduation of Chris Korn, a first team Nittany Division all-star in 2006.
At Philipsburg-Osceola, the quarterback position is prominent as well. Senior receiver JD Mason was a first-team all-conference selection in 2006, edging out Tyrone receiver Justin Schopp, who led the Nittany Division in receiving yards. The bulk of Mason’s 27 receptions were off the arm of A.J. Czap, who was lost to graduation last spring.
His replacement, Bo Reifer, won’t be the run-of-the-mill first-year starter. He started two games in relief of Czap last season after the multi-talented signal caller was suffered a hand injury in Week 10, and he’ll have the luxury of throwing to a player in Mason who may be the best pure athlete in the division.
He will also have an established playmaker at running back in Dimitri Sidorick, who last season led the Mounties with 845 rushing yards on 169 carries.
Bellwood-Antis will attempt to avoid a hangover from its meteoric run through the PIAA playoffs in 2006, and it will face an uphill battle from the beginning. Gone is 6,000-yard rusher Josh Kleinfelter, dazzling slot back Devon Clapper, bruising fullback Jon Davilla and starting quarterback Evan Hughes. Gone also are linemen Chad Coho, Caleb Stevens and Tyler Narehood.
It will be a rebuilding project from the beginning, but who better to lead it than legendary coach John Hayes, who captured his fifth District 6 championship in 2006. At a tradition-proud program like B-A, a coach like Hayes needs only a couple of horses, and he’s got that.
Highly-regarded junior Nate Gray will step in for Hughes at quarterback, with speedster Brandon Humphreys taking over at tailback. Both saw limited varsity action on last season’s senior-laden team.
Bruno DeGol is back at linebacker and will play fullback on offense, while Anthony Jenkins and Cody Smith will anchor B-A’s offensive line.
With the so much depth on display in the upper echelon of the Nittany Division, it could again turn into long seasons for Bald Eagle Area and Lewistown. The Panthers went winless in 2006 and return 20 letter-winners, while BEA won just twice in conference.