Raiders in for battle
Two seasons ago, in 2007, Tamaqua and North Schuylkill entered their midseason contest both searching for their first victory.
The Blue Raiders won that game 42-6 on Stadium Hill, giving then first-year head coach Sam Bonner his initial triumph at the helm.
Since the, the fortunes of both programs have changed dramatically for the better.
Last year both teams qualified for the postseason, with North Schuylkill finishing at 7-4 after losing in the District 11 Class AA semfinals to Palmerton, and Tamaqua going 8-4, falling to Loyalsock in the Eastern Conference Class AA championship game.
Neither squad has lost since then, and with both carrying 5-0 marks into Friday's key Anthracite League clash, something has to give.
For Tamaqua, the last time it was undefeated and untied at this point of the campaign was 1956.
The Spartans (5-0) and Raiders (3-0) are currently two of three teams with unbeaten Anthracite records, with Panther Valley (3-0) the other.
The tilt also has major District 11 implications. Heading into this week, Tamaqua and Catasauqua are tied atop the D-11 Class AA standings with 520 points, followed by North Schuylkill with 510 points.
Add Tamaqua's Homecoming festivities to the mix, and Friday's battle is the biggest regular season game on Stadium Hill in some time.
The Spartans, coached by Rick Geist, will present the Raiders' biggest challenge to date.
North Schuylkill has been running roughshod over the competition, outscoring the opposition by a whopping 157-21. Meanwhile, Tamaqua has rolled up a 160-51 advantage on its opponents.
The Spartans' ground game operates behind a veteran offensive line and is led by juniors Scott Houser, who has rushed for 511 yards and six touchdowns, and Eddie Pavalko (295 yards, 5 TDs).
North Schuylkill's aerial attack is also potent, as senior quarterback Tom Ferrari has completed 23 of 42 passes for 487 yards and seven TDs.
The Spartans like to spread the ball around, as five different players have caught TD passes. Seniors Zach Parnell (six catches, 148 yards), Steve Ennis (5-64), Zach Hogan (4-69) and tight end Derek Hughes (3-136) are the main targets for Ferrari.
"Like the North Schuylkill teams of the past, they like to pound it at you, but this year they also have good receivers and run a lot of play action," said Bonner. "If they can, though, they'll try to run it at you and stuff it down your throat.
"This is definitely one of the most physical teams we are going to see, and the biggest challenge for us defensively because of the balance they have. They are also a team that takes advantage of mistakes, so we don't want to give them any easy yardage or take away any yardage we get."
The Raiders won't back down in the physical department, either. Grif Griffiths leads the rushing game with 468 yards and six TDs, with both Jared Muffley and Garth Lakitsky also capable of finding the end zone.
Raider junior QB Ryan Palsgrove is a double threat, passing for 552 yards and five TDs, but he is also a dangerous runner in the veer option attack. Receivers Anthony Bumbulsky (19-311, 3 TDs) and Mike Streisel (6-175, 2 TDs) are big play weapons at receiver.
"The key for us is not to make mental mistakes and give up the football or field position," noted Bonner. "We have to sustain some drives, but they are tough to drive against. I feel our kids are prepared and ready for it."
North Schuylkill leads the all-time series 21-9. Tamaqua has won five of the last eight meetings, although the Spartans won 35-20 last season.