AFL title is on the line
Billing it as the "Game of the Week" just might be an understatement.
For Panther Valley and North Schuylkill, Friday night's Anthracite Football League showdown in Fountain Springs is the "Game of the Year."
In fact, for many Panthers and Spartans, it could end up being the "Game of their Lives."
The stakes are enormous in a contest that will decide the Anthracite Football League Championship, the first for either school.
"We were in big games last year at the end of the season and we let them slip away from us," stated Panther Valley head coach Frank Damian. "We know Friday night is a big game and North Schuylkill is a very tough opponent, but we just want to go out and play our brand of football and hopefully we'll be able to come out on top."
Just two years ago, North Schuylkill was not only the laughing stock of the AFL, they were a dying program marred in a miserable 0-10 season.
What a difference a few years can make.
Head coach Rick Geist has guided the Spartans to an 8-0 record (7-0 AFL) and North Schuylkill joins Wilson Area as the only undefeated teams in District 11.
For Panther Valley (7-1, 6-0), it was just three years ago that they suffered through a horrendous 1-9 season. Coach Damian and his staff has since righted the ship and has the Panthers sailing.
"For us, it was just a matter of implementing our program in the offseason and having the kids buy into it and dedicate themselves and I think it's really the same case up there at North Schuylkill," noted Damian. "A few years ago we were both doormats, so it's just a tribute to the coaching staffs and the kids to believe in themselves and to be able to turn things around in such a short amount of time."
Aside from League implications, the game will have a strong bearing on seedings for the District 11 Class AA Tournament. Currently, North Schuylkill is seeded second with 940 points, while Panther Valley trails as the third seed with 840 points. The winner will most likely solidify a first or second seed (dependent on top-seeded Northern Lehigh's next two games) and an extra home game for the eight-team playoff, while the loser will jockey for a third or fourth seed.
North Schuylkill currently leads the all-time series 8-4-1 since 1988 but has won six of the last seven contests, including last year's 40-39 victory. Offense has dominated the rivalry with the winning team scoring 40 points or more in five of their past six meetings (with Panther Valley's 29-27 victory in 2007 being the exception).
However, scoring points will not be as easy this time around, as both teams pride themselves on suffocating defense.
Panther Valley is allowing just 200.4 yards of total offense per game and has not given up more than 14 points to any opponent this season.
Meanwhile, North's Schuylkill defense is not only the best in the area, they're also one of the stingiest in the state.
The Spartans are allowing just 4.4 points per game and have posted shutouts in four of their eight contests. In fact, North Schuylkill has given up just five touchdowns this season, only two of which have been scored on its first-team defense.
"North Schuylkill has about as good a defense as you're going to see," added Damian. "They're very opportunist. They wait for you to make mistakes and then they make you pay for it. We know they're a great defense and they're going to blow things up on us, but we just need to remain patient, take what they give us and play Panthers football."
Scott Houser (99 carries, 611 yards, 8 touchdowns) and Eddie Pavalko (82 carries, 446 yards and 9 touchdowns) shoulder the load in the backfield for the Spartans, while Tom Ferrari has passed for 575 yards with eight TD's and two interceptions.
"We know they're a good offense and they're going to come right at us," said Damian. "But the good thing is that we played against that style of offense the last two weeks (with Schuylkill Haven and Tamaqua) and we know what's coming. As we stress every week, if you get all 11 players to the ball and get good tackling, good things will happen."