Hollidaysburg Area High School's football season began with a scrimmage at Mansion Park and ended there on Friday night with a 21-14 loss to Johnstown in the District 6 Class AAA championship game.
In between, the Golden Tigers went on a wild ride that took them on a tour of strong quad-A teams from Philadelphia to Williamsport, literally, and eventually landed them in Pittsburgh, figuratively.
The 4-7 final record was something of a footnote.
"It really was an interesting season to say the least,'' Tiger captain and quarterback James Muir said. "It made every achievement worthwhile. Things didn't work out, but we have a lot of memories that we'll have for the rest of our lives."
Hollidaysburg only played four home games and five teams that weren't Class AAAA in its last season as a football member of District 6 before moving into the WPIAL next year. "Interesting'' would be one word to describe it. A weary-looking Tiger coach John Barton had other adjectives.
"It's been a brutal year,'' Barton said. "It really has been.''
Barton compared it to 2005, when Hollidaysburg was still a member of the Harrisburg-based Mid-Penn Conference and played the likes of Bishop McDevitt and Cumberland Valley.
Those Tigers, though, were AAAA, and Barton had greater numbers on whom to call to compete. There were no four-hour trips in 2005, and, unlike this season, Hollidaysburg had a junior varsity team for a squad whose roster lingered in the mid-to-upper 30s.
Football is a physical game. This season was like "Survivor,'' especially when you factor in the bouts with the flu that made the rounds and the rain that seemed to fall every Friday.
"The kids decided to play,'' Barton said. "The kids decided to be tough enough, to stick it out and play with us. I'm very proud of them. They really hung together. Like I told them, when things got bad, they didn't hang their heads and quit and walk away.''
For Barton, whose 74 wins and three district championships in 11 seasons are a testament to his coaching ability, taking a team essentially with two part-time starters into this season with this schedule was a monumental challenge. For the players, it was what it was.
"It was a tough season, but you can't let the size of the opponent or the number of players they had put you down. We just came out and played as hard as we could,'' all-Mountain Conference offensive lineman Kevin Willis said. "I think [we were able to do that] because the tradition of this program is a family. We always treat each other with respect, and we stick together through the tough times.''
And there were plenty of those, especially early in the season. The Tigers opened things at State College ... and were crushed, 57-6. Road losses to South Western (34-14) and West Chester Henderson (28-7) followed.
"I'm really proud of our guys, because we had to face a lot with all the away games," Muir said. "We played a lot of quad-A teams and everything, but we just stuck together as a group. We learned from mistakes and made improvements as a team.''
According to the players, their belief never wavered.
"We expect to win every game. We're not trying to be cocky. We're just confident in our abilities,'' Tiger co-captain and standout linebacker Brandon Simpson said. "If you want to compete for a championship, you have to have confidence in yourself and in the other players. I had confidence in everyone of those guys that played, and I know they had confidence in me.''
Still, the season took its toll physically. One of the Tigers' most-experienced players entering the year, two-way starter Colt Edwards, was out of the lineup Friday night after breaking his leg two weeks ago in the regular-season finale against DuBois and having surgery. He was on the sidelines on crutches.
"I just wish I could have been in there,'' Edwards said. "All I wanted to do was get in there, but you can't.''
Barton will have a much more experienced team returning next year, with five starters back on each side of the ball, including potential Division I college prospect Luke Rhodes. Chad Barton, the coach's son who threw for 97 yards and a game-tying touchdown pass in the fourth quarter against Johnstown, will take the reins as the Tigers' starting quarterback.
"We got some younger kids some experience this year, which will really help us in the long run. Chad, I think he'll be more than capable of stepping in,'' Rhodes said. "We're going to have to rebuild, but I think we'll be all right.''
It will be a new world for the Tigers, though. They've been accepted into the WPIAL and will be a member of District 7 next year. The opponents don't figure to be as far away, with teams in Indiana, Greensburg and Murrysville as potential section rivals.
Hollidaysburg will remain in Class AAA, but athletic director Dean Rossi doesn't expect to learn of the Tigers' section until next month at the earliest.
"I'm excited,'' Rhodes said. "I mean, I loved playing districts here, but it's not up to us. We'll make the best of what we've got.''
Just like the Tigers did this year.
Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.