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Eagles renew rivalry with Scarlet Dragons, shoot for third sraight undefeated season

The Tyrone Golden Eagles have a chance to make history tomorrow when they visit Central at Roaring Spring Athletic Field.
A win would give the 8-0 Eagles (5-0 Nittany Division) an undefeated regular season, which in itself is nothing new under coach John Franco, who has guided Tyrone teams to five unbeaten regular seasons since 1996. It would also be the third time Tyrone has registered back-to-back unbeaten seasons under Franco.
But never before at Tyrone, with Franco in charge or any other coach for that matter, has a team gone three straight seasons without a loss, and that’s what the Golden Eagles have an opportunity to do against the Scarlet Dragons.
That’s something Franco mentioned to his players this week, but in reality it’s the least of the pragmatic coach’s concerns. Instead, concern No. 1 has nothing to do with records or securing the team’s fourth-straight MAC Nittany Division championship, and everything to do with the playoffs. A win would assure Tyrone the top seed and home field advantage in the District 5-6 Class AA playoffs, which start in two weeks.
“Three undefeated seasons is something that’s never happened at our school before and something that rarely happens at all in high school,” Franco said. “But our big thing is to reach one of our goals, and that’s to get a one or two seed in the playoffs. Another goal is to win a District championship, so this game is very important.”
The Eagles’ margin for error in qualifying for the postseason was magnified when Johnstown reneged on a two-year contract it had signed with Tyrone before the 2006 season. Tyrone could have tried to schedule a Week 10 game with a Class A school that failed to qualify for the playoffs, but under the District’s new scoring system, such a move would have worked against the Eagles.
“This year, because not everyone could schedule a Week 10 game, they go by points per game,” Franco said. “At the end of the season, they divide the number of games you’ve played into your total points, so if we pick up a game against a Single-A team that has only two wins, it actually knocks us down in points per game.”
The best decision, in Franco’s eyes, was to end the regular season in Week 9 and use Week 10 to heal up for a postseason run. He would feel a lot better if his team could spend Week 10 as the last remaining undefeated team in Class AA.
But it won’t come easy. The Dragons, though just 2-6 (1-4 Nittany Division), have shown the ability to score points in bunches – as demonstrated in a 48-27 loss to Philipsburg-Osceola last week – and they’re led by one of the top passers in the Nittany Division in Chris Kurtz.
Standing just 5-foot-6, Kurtz has completed 105 of 163 passes (64.4 percent) for 1,305 yards and 9 touchdowns. He leads the Dragons with 7 touchdowns, and he’s second on the team with 195 rushing yards on 95 carries.
“He’s a special kid,” said Central coach A.J. Hoenstine. “He’s only five-six, 145, but he plays like he’s six-three, 210. We rely on him to do a lot, and he makes things happen with his arm and his feet.”
After watching three of Central’s games on film, Franco was impressed with Kurtz’s playmaking ability.
“He puts the ball on the money and finds the open receiver,” Franco said. “He’s got a knack for playing the game. He’s very quick, and he can make all of the throws – he can throw the deep ball, the fade, the intermediate routes, and he has nice touch on the short stuff.”
Against the Mounties, a game the Dragons trailed just 27-21 heading into the fourth quarter, Kurtz completed 30 of 46 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns.
But the problem for the Dragons was similar to what they’ve encountered all year. With nine underclassmen starting, Central’s defense has come along at a much slower rate than its offense. The Dragons are allowing 22.4 points per game, and have surrendered more than 25 four times.
Still, Hoenstine said, the Dragons will enter tomorrow’s game with every intention of stopping Tyrone’s running game, led by senior Shayne Tate.
“We have to stop Tate if we want to have any chance of winning,” Hoenstine said. “That’s easier said than done. He’s stepped in nicely, and it’s like I told our kids this week: that’s Tyrone football. No matter who’s in there, they’re going to play hard.”
In his stint as Tyrone’s starting tailback, Tate’s story is similar to the castaways on Gilligan’s Island – his tour of duty was never intended to be this long. When senior Johnny Franco went down in the preseason with a leg injury, it was thought Tate would simply fill in until last season’s leading rusher was healthy enough to return.
Eight games and 1,293 yards later, Tate’s season has him among the top 10 best single-season rushers in school history. He’s also thrown for a touchdown pass and caught four passes for 40 yards.
But the key for Tyrone since mid-season has been the emergence of skill players to complement Tate. Shane Emigh leads the team in receptions with 17 catches for 258 yards, while tight end Johnny Shaffer has caught 10 passes for 123 yards.
Perhaps most importantly, sophomore quarterback Levi Reihart has evolved into a solid starter, completing 47 of 87 passes for 590 yards and three touchdowns. Since his breakout game against Bald Eagle Area in Week 4, when he threw for over 100 yards and his first varsity touchdown pass, Tyrone is averaging 25.8 points per game.
“We’ve worked very hard on our offense,” Franco said. “Not many teams have to replace nine starters, but we did, and when you thrown in a sophomore quarterback, it takes a little bit longer. But our offensive line has done a great job, and we’ll be as good as they are.”
The line may have never been better than it was last week in Tyrone’s 24-21 win over Class AAA contender Indian Valley, when it paved the way for the Eagles to run for 228 yards, part of 359 yards of total offense. Tate ran for over 200 yards for the third time this season, and the offense ground out two time-consuming drives in the second half that didn’t amount to points, but kept the Warriors’ high-scoring offense off the field.
“Tyrone has the mentality to win every game,” Hoenstine said. “The other team might have more yards, but they always seem to find a way to twin. They don’t beat themselves.”
Despite the different directions both teams are headed this season – Tyrone to the playoffs, Central to an early off-season – Hoenstine said his team will “battle” against the Eagles. Franco said he expected nothing less.
“Our kids are excited to play on their Senior Night,” said Hoenstine.
“When you look at our schedule, there’s no team we can’t beat, but there’s also no team that can’t beat us,” Franco said. “The second you think you can just show up and win is when you lose.”
Renewing the Rivalry
Tyrone and Central haven’t played since 2000, but the game was once one of the top rivalries on the Eagles’ schedule, particularly in the mid- to late-1990s.
Tyrone won the final seven games of the 30-game series, but the contest was often the game-of-the-year in the defunct Big 8, like in 1996 and 1997, when both teams went into the game with unbeaten conference records.
Central left the Big 8 in 2000 to join the Laurel Highlands Conference, a move with sweeping effects for the Big 8, which soon broke up and was reformed into the MAC in 2004.
Central’s last win over Tyrone was in 1993 – Hoenstine’s senior season – when the Dragon’s beat Tyrone 31-7 at Gray Memorial Field.
“We told the kids about that this week,” Hoenstine said of the series history. “There was a time when we were the big team, and it was a pretty big rivalry. It was always a battle, and we look forward to another battle Friday.”