A September to remember
Today is the final Saturday in September. The first full month of the football season has quickly passed.
September is the time when the optimism that was built over the summer and during the two and three-a-day drills of August has had a chance to take flight or become grounded.
Tamaqua Area High School's gridders have seen more of the latter over the years. Getting through September unscathed has always been an uphill battle.
As this column is being written, however, the Blue Raiders sport a 3-0 record and, depending on the result of their visit to Mahanoy City last night, could end up with their first 4-0 start since Coach Dick Jones' Eastern Conference Championship team of 1962.
Combine this season's fast start with last year's 8-4 campaign, during which the Raiders qualified for the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since 1984, and it's easy to understand why spirits are high on Stadium Hill.
There are a number of reasons why a fast start is significant for Tamaqua.
Historically, the Raiders have played a tough early season slate. During the days when they played a Class A schedule, which was then the highest classification for the Eastern Conference at the time, the Raiders regularly faced teams such as Pottsville, Hazleton and Berwick during the first month. For many years, Tamaqua opened with perennial powerhouse Mount Carmel or played the Red Tornadoes in the second week.
A schedule like that is not conducive to having many unbeaten Septembers.
In 1984, Tamaqua went to a Class B schedule in the Eastern Conference, and the result was its first playoff appearance since the '62 glory days. With Tom Bonner at the helm, the Raiders went 8-5 and advanced to the EC title game.
The following decade saw a major drop-off for Tamaqua football. From 1990-99, the Raiders won just 24 of 101 games. Take away 14 of those wins from the two seasons Dave "Whitey" Williams coached in 1990 and 1991, and Tamaqua scored just 10 more victories the rest of the decade.
Things have improved in the new millennium. From 2000 through week three of this season, the Raiders have registered 44 wins against 52 losses. Tom Bonner returned and guided Tamaqua to 22 of those wins from 2000-03 and Rick Bennett added eight.
Current third-year coach Sam Bonner, the grandson of former Tamaqua High assistant coach, the late Sam Pagano, has won 14 games, including 11 of his last 14 heading into last night.
Records of Tamaqua football go back to 1901. The best decade was the 1950s, when the Raiders posted 64 wins against 31 losses and four ties, followed by the 1970s (59 wins), the 1920s (53) and the 1940s (52).
Winning eight games, as Tamaqua did last season, turns out to be a major accomplishment.
According to records, the Raiders have had just 20 seasons with seven or more victories. There were eight seven-win campaigns (1916, 1928, 1933, 1948, 1975, 1978, 1985 and 1986); eight eight-victory seasons (1944, 1951, 1953, 1956, 1957, 1984, 1990, 2008); three nine-win seasons (1926, 1927 and 1974); and one 10 win year (1962, the EC championship season).
That's not to suggest that this year's Raiders are guaranteed to reach any of those win totals. There's still six weeks of football to be played in the regular season, and Tamaqua faces a make-or-break stretch in weeks 6-8, when it plays Anthracite League contenders North Schuylkill, Schuylkill Haven and Panther Valley in consecutive weeks, not to mention a trip to Minersville in week nine before hosting the rival Marian Colts in the finale.
What's heartening is that Tamaqua has been able to win the close games, making the plays down the stretch that have eluded past teams. Maybe good fortune is on the Raiders' side for a change, as long as they continue to play hard and stay injury free.
If the Raiders are to qualify for the District 11 playoffs for the first time ever, or make it back to the Eastern Conference postseason, a good September shouldn't hurt their chances.