|Twelve years ago, the Tyrone Golden Eagles accomplished something that just two seasons earlier seemed impossible. Coming off a 5-5 campaign, in coach John Franco’s second season, they marched through an 8-1 regular season, snatched the District 6-AA championship, and advanced all the way to the PIAA semifinals.
In football-starved Tyrone, where one- and two-win seasons had become the norm, each victory was a thrill, and each playoff game where the Eagles found a way to survive and advance was a blessing.
It was a tide-changing season in many ways. With most of its lineup back in 1996, the 1995 season changed expectations. Now, it seemed natural that Tyrone would make it back at least to the District title game. That they would win the Big 8 was almost a foregone conclusion.
Things really changed in 1999, when the Eagles ripped their regular season competition by an average of 34 points per game, allowing more than a single touchdown only once. Now, expectations weren’t just to win, but to win big – with points for style.
With every championship victory and blowout win that followed over the next eight seasons, the monster of football expectations in the borough grew larger and larger.
And then came 2007. A team filled with first-time starters, versatile athletes and overachievers found a way to do something that – to an outside observer – seemed unthinkable when injuries at key positions decimated the team in August. The Golden Eagles finished the regular season undefeated, won a fourth straight MAC Nittany Division championship, set a school record for consecutive wins, and advanced to the District playoffs for the twelfth consecutive season, ultimately going 10-1.
But unlike the magical ride of 1995, there were rumblings in the wake of Tyrone’s 21-10 loss to Central Cambria in the District 6-AA semifinals.
“A lot of people don’t know how to appreciate a close win anymore,” said Franco. “Our kids had to push themselves to the limits in most of our games in order to win this season, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Despite any negative feelings that might have existed among segments of Eagle Nation after Tyrone’s playoff exit, Franco still saw the season as a success for a team that was rearranging its starting lineup hours before the season opener against Bellwood-Antis.
“Anytime you can have an undefeated regular season, that’s a feather in a team’s cap,” Franco said. “It was a great season. We beat a couple of teams we probably had no business beating. Each week was a struggle. There were a lot of teams this season that had the talent to beat us and didn’t. That’s a tribute to the kids and to the program. We continue to find ways to win.”
And while most wins in 2007 weren’t of the artistic variety, when the final record is read, they still add up to a regular-season winning streak that is now 32 games and counting. The way the Eagles did it wasn’t always pretty, but the story of how they managed to do it at all is an epic that would make Homer proud.
There were obstacles to overcome, heroes to save the day, and players who rose from obscurity fill pivotal roles.
It began about as ominously you could imagine when, just before the start of the regular season, starting running back Johnny Franco went down with a leg injury that, in the days before the Bellwood game, was discovered to be a broken left fibula. It was an injury that kept the senior rusher on the shelf for the better part of the next 10 weeks.
But in his absence, classmate Shayne Tate proved himself to be one of the most versatile players in the Franco Era, shifting from wide receiver to running back on a day’s notice and charging ahead to compile the sixth-best single season a rusher has ever produced at Tyrone. He finished with 1,546 yards on 208 carries, scoring 14 rushing touchdowns.
Tate ran for 100 yards or more eight times, and eclipsed the 200-yard mark on three occasions. In Week Six against Punxsutawney, when the Golden Eagles tied the school record for consecutive wins at 29 games, he rambled for a career-high 282 yards on 15 carries, including back-to-back touchdown runs of 74 and 97 yards.
But it turned out that Tate wasn’t the only playmaker waiting for an opportunity. Classmate Shane Emigh, shifting into a role as the Eagles’ premier receiver, showed that he could hurt the opposition in a number of ways. As a receiver, he led the team with 26 receptions for 380 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also rushed for 153 yards on 17 carries, scoring three times on reverse plays.
Add to that the three defensive touchdowns he scored, and it easy to see why Emigh was one of the top two-way players in the MAC.
A lot of Emigh’s success offensively came because sophomore Levi Reihart progressed faster than could have been expected as the Eagles’ starting quarterback. When camp began, coach Franco said, the plan was to bring Reihart along slowly, with him splitting time at the position with Johnny Franco, who was going to quarterback a spread offense similar to that run at Arkansas with Darren McFadden.
Franco’s injury changed that, and Reihart was forced to learn on the fly. He came of age in Week 4 against Bald Eagle Area when he completed 11 of 13 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown, and from there his stock rose steadily until an injury to his throwing hand sidelined him in the first half of the District semifinals.
Reihart finished the season completing 53.5 percent of his passes (61 for 114) for 774 yards and six touchdowns with five interceptions.
However, he may have made his most important play with his hands and feet, rather than his arm. With Tyrone trailing Philipsburg-Osceola 13-7 in Week 7 with the MAC championship on the line, Reihart drove the Eagles 57 yards to the P-O 10-yard line with under two minutes to play.
On third down from the 10 with 15.9 seconds left, Reihart pitched to Tate going left, slipped free in the left flat, and pulled in a throwback pass for a score that lifted Tyrone to its 30th consecutive regular season win.
A week later, the Eagles knocked off once-beaten Indian Valley at home 24-21. In 10 victories, Tyrone claimed wins over one District semifinalist (P-O), and two teams (B-A and Indian Valley) that won their respective classifications.
“Philipsburg and Indian Valley had way more talent than we did,” said Franco. “The drive versus P-O was a classic – a 10-play drive by a sophomore quarterback. Against Indian Valley, we played a heck of a game. They had weapons galore and we were able to keep them off the field because of our offensive line.”
It was a line that was pieced together after losing most of its starters to graduation a season before, and one that will return many of its key pieces in 2008, including Matt Murray, Jarrod Good, Larry Glace, Jared Templeton, and Johnny Shaffer, even though losing Brock Anders, Josh Bradley and Nick Wilson.
There will be more holes to fill on defense, where Tyrone loses a large chunk of its defensive backfield and line. Tate and Emigh combined for 10 takeaways from their positions in the secondary, while Josh Bradley finished with 8.5 tackles for loss from his position on the defensive line.
Ben Ingle, who led the team with six interceptions and seven takeaways, will return to lead the secondary, while Mark Mingle will be back at linebacker. Also returning are defensive end Larry Glace (3 TFL), Murray (4.5 sacks) and Johnny Shaffer, who led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks, despite not playing defense in Week 1 because of a shoulder injury.
“We need to have more skill kids step forward,” said Franco of next season’s prospects, “but we have a solid foundation up front on the offensive and defensive lines.”
In short, the components are there for a run similar to 2007. In fact, there’s enough returning to believe the Eagles could continue to build on the incredible string of regular season success they established this season.
The biggest question may be: if it doesn’t end in a District championship, how many people will truly appreciate it?
|Steppin’ out:Tyrone senior tailback Shayne Tate steps out of a tackle attempt against Penns Valley, on Sept. 14, at Gray-Vets Memorial Field. Tate rushed for 129 yards on just 16 carries in a 10-3 Tyrone victory, and ended the season with 1,547 yards rushing in his first season as a tailback, in place of the injured Johnny Franco. (The Daily Herald/Steve Michaels)|
|Taking off: With senior lineman Brock Anders (54) running interference, Tyrone sophomore quarterback Levi Reihart (6) goes around the right side against Lewistown, on Sept 28, at Gray-Vets Memorial Field. Reihart scored on this 11-yard run and guided Tyrone to a 35-0 triumph. (The Daily Herald/File Photo)|
|Welcome back: Johnny Franco (2) was able to return and play the entire Westmont-Hilltop District quarterfinal game on defense, and several series on offense, running five times for 27 yards. (The Daily Herald/File Photo)|