Good morning, everyone and please bear with me this week!
Many years ago, before the sun had peaked above the horizon, my alarm sounded and I rose from beneath layers of blankets. A mid-November Arctic freeze engulfed the state and even the windows were covered in a thin sheet of ice. Just at the foot of the bed was a perfectly folded jersey, bleach white pants, socks, some thermal underwear, and freshly polished cleats ready for packing.
After an eye-opening, steamy shower, I placed my gear in my travel bag and headed to the kitchen. My brother and I gathered to see my father and my mother sitting in the dimly lit room, their eyes barely open. After an exchange of “Good mornings,” we headed for my black 1977 Chevy Nova, a classic with a revving engine and Cragar wheels. They wished us luck, as they had 11 times before that fall. And as I started to close the door behind me, mom blared out, “You are going to win today.” It was all I needed to hear.
We joined our teammates at Alexander’s Restaurant in Mayfield for breakfast as the sun began to rise. The air was frigid. There was a long road ahead of us all, and you could almost hear a pin drop in the dining area despite more than 50 people trying to maintain order. Williamsport seemed a world away from our tiny town. This was our group’s first playoff game as varsity athletes at Lakeland High School, a program at the time that had reached the postseason 10 times in 17 years, and everyone involved wanted to make it a time to remember. Still, our minds were on the game. The journey to this day took a lot of work. It came because this team had navigated an imposing schedule many weeks against programs and schools much larger than our own. We had learned very early in our high school lives that this group had something special, but realizing our collective dream wouldn’t come easy. Standing in our way was a team created from an enrollment almost four-times our size. They had a roster filled with players, who were sought after collegiate recruits. A hearty breakfast would help make the 120-mile drive more bearable. Soon, we were on our way, and still the silence was deafening.
Once at Williamsport, we were welcomed by a string of highly spirited signs, written out in red and black paint. The Millionaires were the defending Eastern Conference Class A champions and the school had been energized by a third straight trip to the postseason. I peered out through my slightly fogged up window from the overworked heater in the bus and took it all in. This was what playoff football was all about and we had earned this privilege. But the trip was only a small part of this day.
During pregame, it took a lot to withstand the sub-freezing temperatures and the whipping wind. All we needed was to look at the visiting team’s bleachers for inspiration. Thousands of hard-working people, put their lives on hold, bundled up to the point where they all looked like Randy from “A Christmas Story” and packed tightly into their seats for warmth to support this team. Inside the locker room, our cheeks chafed, you could see in all of our eyes what this opportunity meant to each player. At a moment when we split and came together for our position meetings, our running backs coach, Bob James, a man who could convince you to run through fire because you wouldn’t get burned, just stared. Normally, he had words of wisdom, advice to help gain that extra yard or coaching points to be aware of to make the game plan we had practiced all week work. This was different. He only stared. He walked systematically to each player and looked us right in the eye. It was as intimidating as it was curious. There were no words. At the close of the meeting, he asked to speak privately with me, fullback Ed Docalovich and quarterback Paul Pidgeon. I remember his message clearly:
“Gentlemen,” he began through his grinding teeth and clenched lips. “Those guys out there, they are bigger than you. They are stronger than you. They are faster than you. Heck, they are even better looking than you. …
But, they are NOT better football players. Now you go and show them.”
Well, suffice to say, if you can’t play after that, you aren’t a football player.
We waged battle that day upon a field more suited for the Ice Capades. We played hard. We gave extra efforts on every play. We got hit, harder than we had ever been hit before, and we kept getting up. We were the little guys who didn’t know how to give in. There were a lot of truths in those words coach James said to us. Williamsport had men on their side of the field. As the game moved on and we defied the odds our confidence swelled. We moved the ball against what had been an imposing defense. Our defense swarmed and slammed their backs to the solid, frozen turf. Finally, we broke through and scored. Then, we scored again and we believed. Back and forth we battled for 24 more minutes. Williamsport closed to within 12-6 and maybe, just maybe it had withstood our greatest efforts. Late, in one final surge, I remembered back to what coach James said about us proving ourselves. We powered forward. We made plays and had driven to the 1-yard line. Gusts of wind coned into clouds of dust and debris. But, we fumbled. It would take one more stop. One more time to dig down. After pushing forward out from the shadow of their end zone the Millionaires, with a renewed sense of urgency, seemed poised to score. On a fourth down, though, our defense converged and stopped their back, six inches short of a first down. Our community rushed the field. Moments later we celebrated. I fell to my knees. My 160-pound body had been put through a grinder. Williamsport was as strong and powerful as we had feared. It took everything out of us. Coach James came to me, helped me to my feet, and said, and I’ll never forget this, “I told you they weren’t better football players than you guys.”
A week later we went on to win the Eastern Conference Class A championship with a win over Tunkhannock. We had achieved our goal set 12 months earlier to make history with 13 wins. It was an amazing four months of my senior year.
Almost a full 30 years have passed, and I couldn’t help but think about that day. This weekend many of the players from that season will reunite at PNC Field. Lakeland School District is going to honor that team and the 1977 team — the only two in its history to finish undefeated. It’s been pretty neat to see some of the tattered clips, the aged photos and to be able to relive some of the memories. That season is what high school football is all about for me. We were a collection of dear friends and loyal teammates. We forged a bond stronger than any could have imagined or even come close to breaking. We were brothers. In the years that have passed, so too have many of those relationships. We have all grown and moved on from those glory days. For one more night Saturday, we can be those boys of fall once again. We can be those young players in uniforms who brought such joy to all who placed signs in their front yards or store fronts, and made the journey with us. We can be — for maybe one last time — Lakeland Chiefs.
More local memories
OK, OK, I hear you all, enough Al Bundy!
I can’t hog all the spotlight with my trip back in time. Also this weekend, Valley View will be celebrating its 1992 PIAA Class 2A championship team Friday night. It is the second big ceremony for the Cougars this season. If you remember back to Week 2, Valley View honored former Hall of Fame coach Frank Pazzaglia and his longtime assistant Tom Krempasky. They, with a long list of players, were the foundation of this program, considered as one of the greatest of all time.
The 1992 team became the second in the Big 11-era to win a PIAA championship, joining the Dunmore Bucks of 1989. Valley View head coach George Howanitz was an all-state defensive back and the quarterback for that team that finished with a 15-0 record — best among any team in this area’s history.
“The Cougars posted a memorable, 22-21, win over defending Big 11 and EC Class I champion North Pocono in the final week of the regular season.
Mike Shemonski returned a kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown, Mike Conaghan added a 19-yard touchdown run with 1:32 left and George Howanitz connected on a pair of 2-point conversion passes as part of a 16-point comeback in the final 111/2 minutes to preserve the unbeaten record.
Howanitz, a Times-Tribune All-Region player on offense and defense and now the Cougars coach, led the team on both sides of the ball. The Bucknell recruit threw for more than 900 yards and ran for more than 900 in the record-setting season. He earned a spot on the Associated Press Small School (Class 2A-Class 1A) all-state team on defense after grabbing four interceptions and four fumble recoveries, and was the inaugural winner of the Fiore Cesare Award, presented annually by the Scranton Chapter of PIAA Officials.
Nose guard Kelly Peters was The Times-Tribune Defensive Player of the Year and an all-state selection, leading a defense with more than 80 tackles.
All-Region linebackers Ryan Coleman and Jeff Esterline each had more than 100 solo tackles for the Cougars, who posted three shutouts and gave up 8.5 points per game.
Valley View’s offense averaged 30.4 points with eight games of more than 30 points. During the postseason, the Cougars averaged 33.5 points against Class 2A competition.
Shemonski had 458 yards receiving with five touchdowns and four punt returns and two kickoff returns for scores and earned a spot as a second-team, all-state pick.
Russell Canevari led the team with 1,065 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Conaghan, a bruising fullback, ran for more than 800 yards.
Center Steve Pratico, a 6-1, 215-pound powerhouse, and guard Bob Evans were also named All-Region.”
I do think, remembering the past is an important part of high school sports, and it’s nice that many schools have brough back former teams this fall.
ROARING TO A TITLE
1992 Valley View Cougars season
20 Hanover Area 0
39 Scranton Tech 6
21 Wyoming Area 7
25 Dunmore 6
40 Lakeland 6
34 Abington Heights 8
21 Scranton Prep 0
41 Troy 20
32 West Scranton 8
22 North Pocono 21
27 Riverside 0
Eastern Conference Class II playoffs
47 Jim Thorpe 12
34 Dallas 13
PIAA Class AA playoffs
32 Bermudian Springs 0
21 East Allegheny 13
There are three weekends left in the regular season. The LFC season is getting down to the nitty, gritty. There are three matchups between ranked teams that should really make this one of the best weekends of the season. In all three, the teams played twice in 2016 in the regular season and the playoffs.
Speaking of the playoffs. Here is a look at the picture heading into this critical weekend:
Number of qualifiers:
Class 6A – 4; Class 5A – 3; Class 4A – 8; Class 3A – 4; Class 2A – 4; Class 1A – 2.
LFC DIVISION I
Delaware Valley at Scranton
It doesn’t get much better than a battle of the big boys. Delaware Valley is the No. 1 team in the area and is proving to be very strong and getting stronger. Ryan Obiso had 5 touchdowns and 185 yards and QB Nick Reilly had 198 yards passing against Williamsport last week. That was a statement game loud enough to vault the Warriors to No. 6 in the state in Class 6A according to Pennlive.com. Scranton hasn’t been the same team since The Battle for the Bell and maybe that is a result of having a rivalry game of that magnitude in the middle of the season rather than at the end. Plus, the Knights are really banged up. Without being at full strength, they lost a two-score lead in the fourth quarter to Williamsport and lost convincingly to Hazleton Area. RB Rheyse Green and WR Ky’Ron Harbin are expected to be back at full strength which should make this a very intense game.
LFC DIVISION II
Scranton Prep at Western Wayne
This game had a lot of intrigue to it also, because many believe it could be a preview of the District 2 Class 3A championship game. Scranton Prep won its 16th straight game in the regular season last week and it posted its fifth shutout in seven games. The Cavaliers have a record of 30-4 since 2015. Western Wayne faced its first real test of the season and gave an outstanding effort against North Pocono, but suffered its first defeat of the season. Now the Wildcats also suffered an injury when WR Dylan Walck left the game. Coach Randy Wolff said this week that Walck is recovering and is doing well. Scranton Prep is the No. 2 Class 3A team in the state.
North Pocono at Valley View
How fitting that the 1992 Valley View Cougars will be honored at a game against North Pocono, which it beat, 22-21 that season to clinch the Big 11 championship? This is a big game too. Valley View has been overpowering in its four wins led by speedster Seth Vernon and QB Chandler Fuller. However, the Cougars have lost three games by a total of 12 points. North Pocono defeated Western Wayne last week and is hoping to stay in contention for a division title. The Trojans are paced by QB Donny Blaine, RB JC Gaughan and OL-DL Matt Caputo. Both teams have lost to Scranton and Delaware Valley.
LFC DIVISION III
4TH ANNUAL RAILRIDERS BOWL
On Saturday, Old Forge will play Lakeland in the RailRiders Bowl at PNC Field. The Blue Devils are 7-0 this season and are in the driver’s seat for a spot in the District 2 Class 1A championship game. They could clinch that spot with a win here. RB Brendan Mozeleski has paced this latest run of success for Old Forge, which has bounced back from a 4-7 seasonin 2016. Lakeland has won two straight to get its season back on track. QB Nico Piraino has thrown for more than 1,000 yards for the second straight season and WR Thomas Pidgeon leads the LFC with 42 receptions.
PAST RAILRIDERS WINNERS
2014: Abington Heights Comets
2015: Valley View Cougars
2016: Lakeland Chiefs
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
Saturday: Old Forge vs. Lakeland, 7 p.m.
- Lakeland and PNC Field will honor the 1977 and 1987 undefeated Lakeland Chiefs teams.
Sunday: Old Forge vs. Lakeland Junior Varsity game, Noon
That is all for this week.
I hope you all don’t hold it against me for taking a look back on a #ThrowbackThursday. GameFace this week does take an in-depth look at the 4th annual RailRiders Bowl. I have to thank Rob Judge of the RailRiders for helping with us getting the photo shoot done at the stadium. This will be the second game at the stadium this season and by all accounts last week’s West Scranton-Valley View game went very well.
Where will I be this weekend?
Delaware Valley at Scranton
Riverside at Holy Cross
Then, I will be at the RailRiders Bowl for the game between Old Forge and Lakeland and looking forward to seeing some of my old teammates. And I mean old in the most sincere way!