|Andrew Clark||Shane Walker|
When Tyrone laced Bald Eagle Area in Week 5 with a 41-0 beat-down that was every bit as lopsided as the final score indicated, it was clear that it would take something pretty special for BEA to ever hope to compete with the Golden Eagles.
Bald Eagle got that special something last week.
BEA scored late in the fourth quarter and held on to win 13-9 over archrival Bellefonte in the Curtin Bowl, giving the Eagles two important things.
The first was a spot in the District 6-AA playoffs as the No. 8 seed with a 4-6 record.
The other was a confidence boost.
That alone will make BEA a very different team than the one Tyrone played in September when the teams face each other tomorrow at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field in the District 6-AA quarterfinals.
Tyrone (9-1) is the No. 1 seed.
“The kids feel good,” said BEA coach Jack Tobias. “They’re pumped up and excited to be in the playoffs. It’s an 8 seed against a 1 seed. We have nothing to lose.”
That’s the kind of attitude Tyrone coach John Franco said makes BEA a more dangerous team the second time around.
“The game against Bellefonte was a big win for them,” said Franco. “They’re on cloud nine and they feel they can take on the world. The last time we played them, they were making a lot of turnovers and silly penalties. They haven’t done that lately.”
But it will take more than a new attitude to turn around those 41 points that separated the teams little more than a month ago. This time, Tyrone will have even more weapons than it did in the first meeting, with three key players who were limited or inactive last time back at full capacity.
In the earlier meeting, Mark Mingle – a running back nearing 800 yards for the season – played only on defense while nursing a toe injury. Eric Desch – Tyrone’s leading receiver with almost 600 yards – played almost solely on offense while recuperating from an ankle injury, although on one of his few plays on defense he snagged an interception. And linebacker/defensive lineman Sharrod Hankerson missed the game entirely as a result of an appendectomy.
After that, BEA still has to deal with the Eagles’ key players who were healthy in September, played the entire game, and were responsible for a more than 350-yard disparity in total yardage, which Tyrone won 410-151.
None was more damaging to Bald Eagle than Larry Glace, Tyrone’s top rusher, who scorched BEA for 169 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries. Last week, his career-high 210 yards on 24 carries allowed him to go over 1,200 yards this season and jump into 14th place on Tyrone’s single-season rushing charts.
There’s also Levi Reihart, who passed for 140 yards and a touchdown when the teams last played. Going into the playoffs, the junior has completed 77 of 120 passes for 1,277 yards and nine touchdowns with just two interceptions.
Biggest of all, the Golden Eagle line that opened holes for Tyrone to rush for 263 yards in its last game with BEA is still all there. And if anything, Matt Murray, Jerrod Good, Jared Templeton, Jordan Berry, Dustin Weaver, Dan Benson, Mark Bryan and John Shaffer have only gotten better.
“They’ve improved overall in every area,” Tobias said. “They’re a solid team from an execution standpoint. They’re fundamentally sound, and you can see it when they run the same things year after year and they’re still successful because the players believe in what they’re doing.”
They’ve also got a unity of focus this season that, Franco said, has perhaps been missing in Tyrone’s last couple playoff appearances, especially last season when the Eagles – again a 1-seed, bowed out in the semifinals with the a loss to Central Cambria.
The game was unusual because Reihart suffered a hand injury in the first half that forced him to the sideline. Johnny Franco entered the game in his place after missing the entire regular season with a broken leg. Some bickering among the players followed, and Tyrone’s offense never got rolling like it did during an unbeaten regular season.
“The way everything went last year, we’ve got a couple players out to prove themselves. They didn’t like how last season ended,” said Franco. “They want to show they are among the best Tyrone teams to play here. It’s a pretty hungry team, no doubt.”
For BEA to have a chance, it’s going to take a better offensive performance than it orchestrated the last time it faced Tyrone. Then, Bald Eagle managed just eight first downs and a little over 100 yards rushing, while its passing attack was a non-factor.
But according to Tobias, quarterback Derek Noll, who has passed for 489 yards despite completing only 29 percent of his passes, has made strides since September.
“Our quarterback has gotten a lot more experience, and that makes things a lot easier,” Tobias said. “We’re right there on that edge of being a good offense.”
When Tyrone played BEA the first time, it was in the middle of an offensive slump that saw BEA score just three touchdowns in six weeks, losing three times by shutout. BEA then exploded for 41 points against Lewistown two weeks ago, before scoring two significant touchdowns against the Red Raiders last week.
“Two of our big backs, Jon Gingrich (56-355) and Donnie Burns had bad ankles the last time we played Tyrone,” said Tobias. “We were also coming off two big losses and a physical game with Central Mountain. The biggest difference for us now is that we have a totally different mind state and we’re healthy.”
The Golden Eagles will still have to deal with BEA leading rusher A.J. Robinson, who has gained 802 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 161 carries.
Still, Bald Eagle will have a long way to go to catch Tyrone’s dynamic offense, which is averaging 33 points and nearly 400 yards of total offense per game. It’s also an offense that rarely is satisfied to just hold its ground in the postseason.
“We don’t want to play not to lose,” said Franco. “There’s nothing to hide and we want to let it all hang out. If you lose, do it showing your whole arsenal. If you go back to last year’s playoffs, when Levi was hurt, I’m glad we didn’t just run iso-right, iso-left because of Levi’s hand while we had one of our best weapons on the sideline. I would have spent the winter kicking myself. We’re not going to sit on anything.”
It’s been 10 years since BEA last participated in the playoff, making this a brand new experience for the Eagles.
It’s something Tobias wants his team to learn and grow from, while enjoying the moment. He would also like to see them play their best game.
“It’s been a great atmosphere this week in practice,” said Tobias. “A lot of the kids are talking about how they have always wanted to make the playoffs. I told them that if you want to win a District championship, you’re going to have to go through Tyrone sooner or later. It will be a good experience to see and feel the playoff atmosphere. Tyrone’s fan base is second-to-none and I expect it to be packed. It will be interesting to see how far we’ve come.”