There can be a fine line between winning and losing football games.
Just ask Tamaqua Area coach Sam Bonner.
Last season the Blue Raiders won their first five games. This year, the Raiders have a 1-3 mark entering tonight's non-league game with Pleasant Valley on Stadium Hill.
On the surface, it appears the Raiders' fortunes have been reversed. A closer look reveals how easily those records could have been flip-flopped.
A year ago, the Raiders edged Jim Thorpe 28-27 in a game featuring a controversial celebration penalty on the Olympians after they scored their last TD. The 15-yard flag forced them to go for two on the PAT, and they came up short.
Tamaqua also rallied for tight wins over Lehighton and Shenandoah Valley. Anthony Bumbulsky forced a key fumble in a 14-8 win over the Indians and his interception and TD turned a late 10-7 Shenandoah lead into a 21-10 Raider victory.
Without those breaks, Tamaqua could have lost any of those games.
In their first three games this season, the Raiders didn't get those kinds of breaks, but they also weren't helping themselves due to injuries, penalties and turnovers at the wrong times, and a defense that gave up too many big plays.
The result was an 0-3 start, with all three games decided by a TD.
The Raiders finally broke into the win column with a 49-7 rout of Mahanoy Area, which added to their statistics so that they are now averaging 26.7 points per game and surrendering 21.1. The total yardage numbers are close, too, with Tamaqua gaining 1,225 yards and allowing 1,270.
"Obviously, 1-3 is not where we want to be, but we emphasized we have to continue to make the plays we weren't making in the first three weeks," said Bonner. "Last week, we finally started coming together."
The Raiders were optimistic entering this season thanks to the return of their entire backfield from last year's 8-3 squad: seniors Ryan Palsgrove at quarterback, Grif Griffiths at tailback and Garth Lakitsky at fullback and junior flanker Jarred Muffley.
The Raiders were without Lakitsky at Jim Thorpe due to a knee sprain, and Muffley missed most of the Lehighton game with a hip pointer.
While the backfield is experienced, Tamaqua has just eight seniors, which means a lot of younger players are being asked to step into varsity roles.
Griffiths leads the ground game with 326 yards rushing and seven TDs. Muffley (155 yards rushing) and Lakitsky (142 yards) are threats as both runners and receivers, with each catching eight passes.
Palsgrove, who is 19 for 43 for 400 yards passing, was at his most effective against Mahanoy Area, hitting on 7 of 8 attempts for 112 yards, as well as running for yardage out of the option.
Defensively, the Raiders have done some tweaking and are now favoring five-man fronts over front four alignments. "We've made some adjustments to keep the same personnel on the field, but solidify them," said Bonner.
Tamaqua is entering the meat of its schedule, beginning tonight with MVC contender Pleasant Valley (3-1). Anthracite League favorite North Schuylkill (4-0) is on the agenda next week, followed by a Homecoming visit from Schuylkill Haven (3-1).
Bonner isn't concerned about any one game making or breaking the Raiders' season.
"We are not looking ahead to anybody," stressed Bonner. "Our goal is just to get better every week, and we're hoping we still have a good run in us yet."
UNDERCLASS SUCCESS - Tamaqua's junior varsity and junior high grid teams are off to strong starts.
The Raider JVs, coached by Frank Wenzel and Clarence Opolsky, are 3-0, rolling to wins over Jim Thorpe (50-6), Lehighton (46-14) and Shenandoah Valley (48-0).
The Tamaqua junior high team, under coaches Tom McCabe and Mike Luna, hasn't lost in the past three years and is 4-0, posting wins over Jim Thorpe (30-8), Pleasant Valley (40-12), Lehighton (14-6) and Pocono Mountain East (26-0).
RAIDER REPORT - Other Tamaqua varsity teams are enjoying fine seasons so far.
Stacy Setlock's Lady Raider volleyball squad is 8-1, with its only loss a five-set defeat to Pottsville.
Clem McCarroll recently earned his 100th win at the helm of the Lady Raiders' soccer team, which is 9-2 in defense of its District 11 Class AA crown and has a key game at home with Blue Mountain Monday.
The boys soccer team, under Greg Stewart, is 7-3, with its lone league loss to Blue Mountain.
Tom Kanger's harriers are doing well. The Lady Tams are undefeated at 7-0. Led by junior Amber Carroll and a strong supporting cast, they are contenders for Schuylkill League and D-11 AA titles. The Raider boys are 3-4 with a mix of seniors and upperclassmen.
Jennel Yelito's girls tennis team has a 5-6 mark with three matches left, and the golf team, coached by Josh Shilko, finished dual match action at 3-12.