John Franco begins his second tenure as Altoona Area High School's head football coach this season with an appetite for the challenge.
Franco became a local legend as Tyrone Area High School's football coach, putting together a splendid 18-year run that featured three appearances in the PIAA Class AA state championship game for the Golden Eagles - the most recent being last December - and a state title back in 1999.
At Altoona, he is attempting to resurrect a Class AAAA program that hasn't had a winning season since 2007, and has won just eight out of 37 games over the past four seasons combined.
"It's going to be quite a challenge, and that's one of the main reasons I wanted to come back,'' said Franco, who is employed as a driver's education teacher at Altoona and also directed the Mountain Lions' football program from the 1986 through 1992 seasons. "The program has been down a little bit, and it's going to take a lot of work to get it back to where we would like it to be, but I think it can be done.''
Franco is welcoming back three senior starters on the defensive side of the ball - linebacker Markief Knode and linemen Brandon Bernazzoli and Austin Rosenberry. Another senior, Jake Diviney, saw considerable playing time for the Mountain Lions in the secondary last year.
"Those four guys, we hope, will be the leaders of the defensive unit this year,'' Franco said. "They've practiced very well, as has our whole team. All of our players, including those four, have shown a great attitude and a tremendous work ethic.''
The 5-foot-8, 190-pound Knode is looking forward to a good season for the Mountain Lions.
"I'm very optimistic that we're going to be very good this year,'' he said. "We have a lot of returning starters, and we want to have that winning season.''
Bernazzoli, a 6-foot-1, 245-pounder who has been a starter at defensive tackle and tight end since his sophomore year, agreed with Franco that the Mountain Lions have been putting forth a great effort.
"The entire team is working hard together, and our defense is definitely one of our team's strengths, due to its toughness and discipline,'' Bernazzoli said. "Coach Franco is all about discipline and toughness. I'm really looking forward to this season.''
So is Rosenberry - who, like Bernazzoli and Knode - is also a member of Altoona's wrestling program.
"We're expecting big things,'' said Rosenberry, who started at offensive guard and defensive end for both of the past two seasons, but will switch to offensive and defensive tackle this year. "We have a new coach who has had a lot of accomplishments, and the hype has been that this will be the year Altoona will turn things around. We're pretty excited to prove that point right.''