Momentum on the line
It has been a while since Lehighton and Tamaqua entered their annual rivalry off of Opening Night wins.
The last time both teams were victorious to kick off the season was in 2002, when the Indians, then coached by Bill Brong, knocked off Panther Valley 37-12 and Tom Bonner's Blue Raiders edged Jim Thorpe 7-6.
Opening wins may or may not set the tone for the season, but when the Raiders head down Route 443 Friday night for their non-league clash with the Tribe, both clubs are hoping to continue the momentum.
The squads arrived at their 1-0 marks in radically different fashions.
The Indians outgained Marian by a 407-173 margin in total offense, jumping out to a 21-0 lead en route to a 35-13 win in Hometown. Kyle Hunter connected on 10 of 13 passes for 296 yards, earning TIMES NEWS Player of the Week honors.
Meanwhile, the Raiders held on for a 28-27 rollercoaster ride victory over Jim Thorpe that included plenty of excitement from both Anthracite League rivals, including a controversial ending: an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for excessive celebration on the Olympians after Jon Fritz scored on a TD pass from Corey Cinicola to pull Thorpe within one.
The 15 yard dead ball flag, supposedly because Fritz didn't hand over the ball to the referee quick enough, forced Thorpe to attempt the point-after touchdown from the 17 yard-line, with Cinicola's PAT pass intercepted by Grif Griffiths.
The attention that penalty has received has overshadowed a bit what Tamaqua accomplished that evening, which was snapping a six-game losing streak in season lidlifters against Thorpe.
"This is the first time we're 1-0 since I'm here at Tamaqua," said Raider coach Sam Bonner, in his third year at the helm. "We're excited about starting off the year with a win, especially in our league."
Last year the opening setback wasn't fatal to the Raiders, who finished 8-4 and made the Eastern Conference playoffs, but a slow start sank the Indians' chances, as they ended up 3-7.
"In order for us to make the playoffs, we need to win the rest of our non-league games," said Lehighton coach George Ebbert, now in his second year in charge. "I know it's early to be talking playoffs, but last year we started off in an 0-3 hole."
Led by junior quarterback Ryan Palsgrove, who completed 10 of 15 passes for 149 yards and a TD pass last week, as well as scoring on a 47 yard run himself, the Raiders displayed a balanced attack, also rushing for 139 yards behind backs Griffiths and Garth Lakitsky. Senior wideout Anthony Bumbulsky (7 catches, 101 yards) and junior Mike Streisel had big catches.
"Tamaqua has a lot of weapons," said Ebbert. "They like using Bumbulsky everywhere, so we have to be aware of where he's at on every play."
The Indians, who lost running back Guiseppe Caruso to a preseason injury, are led in the backfield by Anthony Farole, Tim Sulzer and Nate Black, but it was Hunter who hurt the Colts with his bombs to freshman tight end Jacen Nalesnik (3-135) and Matt Rebovich (2-98).
"Their quarterback (Hunter) is someone you have to handle," admitted Bonner. "He's an athlete with a rocket for an arm, and we've got to keep him in the pocket and account for him. They have some big play kids like Nalesnik, too."
Despite their quick-strike capability, both coaches are looking at ball possession as a key.
"They showed a three-man front on defense against Marian, and they've usually run a 4-3, so we have to be prepared for both, because we're going to have our work cut out for us," said Bonner. "We want to control the ball and keep it out of their quarterback's hands."
"We need to be aggressive like we were last week," mentioned Ebbert. "We want to keep Tamaqua off balance a bit, control the ball and keep our defense off the field."
History has been on the Indians' side in the series, as they hold a 19-7 edge over Tamaqua and from 1990-2007 had won 15 of 16 meetings. The immediate past favors the Raiders, however, as they won last year's game 20-7 on Stadium Hill.