A lot at stake for Panthers and Raiders
Copyright Times News 2009
Through the years, the Tamaqua-Panther Valley football series has been a ''throw out the records'' type of rivalry.
Friday's meeting at Panther Valley is shaping up as perhaps the biggest of them all, and it may even serve as a prelude of more to come.
The Blue Raiders and Panthers have been squaring off annually since 1964 and for the first time ever, both enter the game with 6-1 records.
The closest they came to that was in 1991, when Panther Valley was 6-1 and Tamaqua 5-2. Coach Tom Bonner's host Panthers won that game over ''Whitey'' Williams' Raiders by a 35-6 count.
Both programs have seen some lean times since those days, but three years ago, new coaches took over the helms of each, leading to a dual resurgence that has added the significance of a league title chase to the rivalry.
Frank Damian's Panthers are 5-0 in the Anthracite League, joining North Schuylkill (6-0) as the lone Anthracite unbeatens. Panther Valley will visit the Spartans next week.
First, however, the Panthers must get past Tamaqua. Coach Sam Bonner's Raiders are 4-1 in Anthracite competition, with their lone loss against North Schuylkill. In order to have a shot at a share of the league crown, the Raiders must win at PV, then root for the Panthers to knock off the Spartans.
Then there's the District 11 Class AA rankings, where Tamaqua is currently tied for third and Panther Valley fifth. Friday's outcome will have repercussions in the ratings. With eight teams qualifying for the D-11 AA playoff field, the possibility exists that a rematch could occur in the postseason.
It looked like the Panthers and Raiders were headed for such a rematch in the Eastern Conference playoffs last year, which would have given PV a shot at avenging a 28-6 regular season loss at Tamaqua, but the Panthers ended up getting nosed out of a playoff berth in the final EC ratings.
That near miss has driven the Panthers this season, and a 13-12 upset loss at Schuylkill Valley has been the lone bump in the road. Since that setback, Panther Valley has reeled off five straight wins by a combined score of 173-47.
''That week two loss was a blessing in disguise for us,'' said Damian. ''It refocused us and reminded us that we don't want a repeat of what happened to us last year.''
There's a lot at stake this week, not to mention that Panther Valley is also celebrating Homecoming.
''Both programs had been down for awhile, so it's great to see the pride and tradition come back for both communities,'' said Damian. ''I'm happy that our program is back on track and that Coach Bonner has his program turned around, and that we are both in contention for leagues and districts.''
''Any time you go into Panther Valley, it's a big game,'' said Bonner. ''We were both hoping to be in this situation, with a lot on the line.''
Both teams feature quarterbacks (PV's Casey Lawrence and Tamaqua's Ryan Palsgrove) who are double threats to pass and to run. Both have dependable, durable running backs (the Panthers' Kyle McAvoy and the Raiders' Grif Griffiths), and each has a big play receiver (PV's Jake Dunn and the Tams' Anthony Bumbulsky).
The Panthers have gotten the job done up front, with Damian praising the offensive line of center Ryan Richards, guards Jason Harrison and Greg Pecha, and tackles Andrew Stavecki and Andrew Tucker.
The Raiders counter with a forward wall led by three year starters Erik Krause at guard and Mike Gurcsik at tackle, as well as center Peter Conforti and tackle Justin Hubosky, with Dakota Krapf and Carl Wittig seeing time at the other guard slot.
''Tamaqua is a physical team that plays smash mouth and comes right at you, and that's their mantra, to run at you with the Power I,'' assessed Damian. ''Our plan is the same every week: to take what they give us, stress ball security and be patient. It's week eight, we are going to stay with who we are and not going to change.''
''Panther Valley is definitely playing good football on both sides of the ball and making big plays, and they are more physical up front than they have been in the past,'' said Bonner. ''Our defense has really stepped it up this year (linebacker Garth Lakitsky had 16 tackles vs. Schuylkill Haven last week), so we are going to look to do what we do. Obviously, we want to avoid turnovers and take advantage when we do have opportunities.''
Tamaqua leads the all-time series with Panther Valley 24-20-1 and has won four straight and seven of the last eight.