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PIAA “AA” state championship preview – Tyrone (14-1)

Written by: on Saturday, December 17th, 2011

If anybody outside of northeastern Blair County had the Tyrone Golden Eagles reaching the PIAA championship game this year, please stand up and take a bow. Such a prediction was viewed as bold, as conventional thinking was that the WPIAL representative, whether it was Jeannette or ultimately Aliquippa, would advance to Chocolatetown.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the WPIAL’s potential 69th PIAA championship berth – Aliquippa coughed up five turnovers and Tyrone made just enough big plays to advance to its third PIAA championship game in school history.

Tyrone (14-1) will face traditional District 3 power Lancaster Catholic (15-0) in the PIAA AA championship game Saturday at noon from Hersheypark Stadium. Both the Golden Eagles and Crusaders are vying for their second PIAA championship in program history – Lancaster Catholic won state gold two years ago while Tyrone won District 6′s only PIAA football crown in 1999 over Mount Carmel Area.

Saturday’s appearance in the PIAA championship game will mark only the seventh time a team from District 6 has advanced to the state finals, and the sixth time it has happened amongst the PIAA’s small school classifications. Tyrone has accounted for half of those appearances by D6 small school teams and Forest Hills (AA, 1994), Bishop Carroll (A, 2003) and Bishop McCort (A, 2009) round out the group. State College has D6′s only big school appearance – the Little Lions reached the AAAA title game in 2009.

And District 6 hasn’t fared so very well in state championship games. The region is just 1-5 in those previous title game appearances and has been outscored 139-63 (23.2 to 10.5) in those games. While the losses haven’t all been blowouts, the closest defeat came when Forest Hills took Mount Carmel, then of District 11, to double overtime before falling, 20-14, at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona.

Tyrone is a borough in northeastern Blair County situated right along Interstate 99/US Route 220. It is famous for its paper mill (on the north end of town), has an excellent wild brown trout fishery just east of town (the Little Juniata River) and is home to Gardner’s Candies, one of the confectionery institutions rumored to have originally come up with the heart-shaped box of chocolates.

The Golden Eagles’ football history, like a Gardner’s peanut butter meltaway, has been pretty sweet, too. For those unfamiliar with the Tyrone football story, the Golden Eagles are winners of 596 football games in their program history, which began in 1921. Those 596 wins are matched against 345 losses and 41 ties – and the Golden Eagles are 47-18 overall in playoff games, 2011 included. Tyrone has won nine District 6 football championships – eight in AA and one in AAA in the 1980s. Since 1995, the Golden Eagles have posted an impressive overall record of 171-30 (.850).

Tyrone last played for PIAA gold back in 1999 against Mount Carmel, and won, 13-6, when Jesse Jones, a 6,900-yard career rusher and the program’s all-time leader in that department, broke loose for the winning 93-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. Tyrone has had two other backs rush for 4,000 or more yards in their careers – Brice Mertiff (4,507) and Marcus Owens (4,432). But up until this season, Tyrone had never had a career 4,000 yard passer.

Enter Steve Franco, the son of 230-game winner John Franco. The junior Franco, an Akron recruit, surpassed 4,000 career yards passing early on in the season. But the senior didn’t stop there. He kept throwing and throwing and throwing and racking up the passing yardage, and he’s presently sitting at 5,976 yards (1,513 as a sophomore, 1,962 as a junior, 2,501 as a senior) and 64 touchdown passes (15 as a sophomore, 19 as a junior, 30 as a senior). Steve Franco ranks as District 6′s second-all-time leading passer and is one of just seven quarterbacks from the region to throw for 5,000 or more yards. His 64 career touchdown passes have landed him in a three-way tie for first place in D6 history with a pair of former Forest Hills quarterbacks – Brandon Bailey (the current head coach at Richland Township) and Travis Rearick.

Franco’s list of accomplishments doesn’t stop there. An owner of a 36-5 overall record as a varsity starter, Franco has his name etched next to eight Tyrone passing records – career and single-season passing yards, career and single-season touchdown passes, career and single-season completions and career and single-season passing attempts. Yikes. That’s a lot to rewrite. But it would be sufficive to say Franco will easily go down as Tyrone’s best quarterback, both statistically and literally.

A state championship would only further sweeten No. 2s career.

Offensively, though, it’s more than just Franco and his 2,501 passing yards, 222 rushing yards (along with 11 rushing touchdowns) and eight receiving yards. Senior running back Christian Getz has run for 1,715 yards and 21 touchdowns on 302 carries and has more than 3,100 rushing yards over the last two seasons. J.D. Dorminy and James Oliver, the Golden Eagles’ two and three backs behind Getz, have combined for 119 rushes, 649 yards and five touchdowns. And the Golden Eagles have a bevy of receivers to throw to, led by Nick Patton (59 rec., 1,159 yards, 15 TD), Getz (23, 367, 2), Dorminy (24, 353, 3), Charles Adams (18, 299, 5) and tight end Lucas Woomer (12, 135, 3).

Defensively, Tyrone has accounted for 29.5 sacks, 17 interceptions and 19 fumble recoveries. Corbin Nevling-Ray leads the Golden Eagles with 11.5 sacks, Courtland Pannebecker is second with 6.5 sacks and Seth Welch is third with four. Franco and Adams have a team-leading four interceptions each and seven Golden Eagle players have each recovered a pair of fumbles or more. Adams leads the way with three. Needless to say, Tyrone gets to the ball and makes opponents pay. Aliquippa can vouch for that.

The Golden Eagles have allowed an average of 11.1 points per game, holding seven opponents to seven points or less, with four shutouts. Tyrone is averaging 35.3 points per game and is 12 points shy of tying its school record for points in a season, set in 1999 (542).

Can Tyrone shock the state and push its win streak to 14? Or will Lancaster Catholic complete its conquest of winning a PIAA crown before it moves up to Class AAA?

Find out Saturday afternoon.

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