It may be the middle of March, but football is back in the air in the TIMES NEWS area.
The Greater Eastern Football Association, an 8-on-8 semi-pro league, will kick off its season for the seventh time this Sunday. And while a local team will once again be competing in the league, it will be doing so under a new name.
The Panther Valley Breaker Boys, who were known as the Summit Hill Tigers for the last two years, will open their season on Sunday when they host the Schuylkill County Wolfpack at Ginder Field in Summit Hill at 1 p.m.
Last year the team finished 5-5, but managed to string together two memorable playoff wins before falling in its conference championship (Penn-Jersey). It was a season quarterback Scott Reese and his team of "scrappy, sandlot players" will never forget.
Unfortunately for the 'Boys, duplicating that feat will be a little tougher this time around. The team has had a lot of turnover from last year and returns only eight of its 30 players. Regardless, Reese is optimistic about his team's chances.
"Our team goal for this year is to play a meaningful 11th game," said the Panther Valley native. "We have rebuilt the team almost from scratch, so we feel that if we can get into the playoffs then we can make some noise. In order to do that we need to play hard, have fun and improve every week. We started a minicamp in the fall and have practiced together since September. We have played through the rain, wind, snow and sleet on frozen fields. We have dedicated days to watching game films, practiced inside at the YMCA and have revamped our playbook.
"Since last season we have had to fill a lot of key positions, so players went out and recruited any friends that were interested. We have been able to build a roster from eight returning players to 30, which is a full roster in GEFA."
The team has been able to increase its popularity and has improved its record in each of its first two seasons. With that, Reese and his teammates decided to change their name this season in hopes of relating more with the community. While their nickname may not be the most light-hearted, it does relate well with the "coal region."
A breaker boy was a worker in the United States (mid-1860s to 1920s) whose job was to separate impurities from coal by hand in a coal breaker. The first function of a coal breaker was to break the coal into pieces and sort the pieces into categories of uniform size. The coal was often mixed with impurities such as rock and ash, so the second function of a breaker was to remove as many impurities as possible and grade the coal based on the percent of impurities remaining.
Boys between the ages of eight and 12-years-old were forced to work without gloves so that they could better handle the slick coal. The slate was sharp and the boys would often leave with their fingers bleeding. They also had their fingers amputated by the rapidly moving conveyor belts, while others lost feet, hands, arms and legs as they moved among the machinery. Others were caught in the rush of coal and crushed to death.
"This season, after I took over, we wanted our name to be more symbolic of our region's blue collar roots and shared history," said Reese. "We want the 'Breaker Boys' to mean something to the people of the community. We want to not only give our fans a good show, but be more active in the community and give back to the Panther Valley region.
"The 'Breaker Boys' story is a tragic lesson in our history, but an important message for people to remember. My vision is for us to offer our time to charity and contribute more actively. And on the weekends, we hope to give the people of Panther Valley a team that they can go watch and be proud of."
The team is composed of players with full-time and part-time jobs that raise children and work in the area. Reese said his team is proud to represent Panther Valley on the field as well as in the community.
Members include Tony Stoeckel, a two-time GEFA All-Star at defensive end, who played high school football at Panther Valley. Nate Shook played quarterback for the Panthers several years ago.
Brian Newton (FB) and Dean Founds (LB) have both been out of football for more than 15 years but have secured starting spots. Other players on the roster from the Panther Valley or Tamaqua areas include Danny Thorpe (LB), Adam Coleman (LB/S), Noel Abadia (S), Shawn Nunemacher (WR), George Huynh (OL) and John Zaprazny (WR).