After the Mountain Lions split a pair of games at Mansion Park, John Franco's homecoming as Altoona Area High School football coach hits the road for the first time this week.
The Lions will try to bounce back from a tough, hard-fought loss to Kiski Area in Harrison City - near Murrysville - where they'll face 1-1 Penn-Trafford in a Foothills Conference game that kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Friday.
Franco admits he'll be learning quite a bit about his team this week. He's been trying to get them to understand that losing to Kiski following a one-sided, opening-game win over Norwin wasn't the end of the world, but this game will be the true test of the Lion players' psychological makeup.
"It's tough with a new team to gauge what they think and what they feel because you haven't been with them long enough," Franco said. "I hope it got through, but I know there's a lot to build here."
The most frustrating part of falling to Kiski might not have been the result itself as much as that Franco thought the Lions actually performed better against what appears to be a better team than they did in their first-game victory. Altoona outrushed Kiski, outpassed Kiski, won the turnover battle, committed just two penalties and held the Cavaliers to less than 200 yards.
"I was really pleased with our defense. Their kicking game and our offense put our defense in several bad situations, and our defense responded almost every time. They had five three-and-outs, and I think four of the five were in the second half to keep us in the game. Our special teams were 100 percent better than game 1," Franco said. "We have a 'winning things' chart that I've been using for about 20 years. It will give you a pretty good idea if you are going to win. There's 21 things on that chart, and we did just about every one of them right. I was disappointed in how our running backs and offensive line blocked.
"They made some plays when they had to, and we didn't. There were a lot of very good signs, but it was really frustrating, because we thought we would be able to build on our offensive success in game 1, and we really didn't."
While Kiski seems like it might be a program on the rise, Penn-Trafford is one that already has arrived. The Warriors were 10-1 last year and even beat Gateway in the regular season on their way to winning the Foothills Conference championship.
Penn-Trafford has a drastically different look this year, though, with new starters manning 19 positions.
"We're still feeling ourselves out as to what our identity is on both sides of the ball. Fortunately, we have a few guys back on defense, and they've been carrying us while we figure things out," P-T coach John Ruane said. "I like our progress. I think we've been getting a little bit better each day."
The Warriors opened the season with a 28-14 loss to typically tough North Hills but came back last week to down Norwin, 27-7.
The primary weapon offensively for Penn-Trafford in the early going has been 6-foot-1, 180-pound converted-receiver Dorian Stevens, who not only leads the team in passing but rushing - he's responsible for 298 yards of total offense.
"Everything revolves around him, and he is a play-maker," Franco said.
Although it wasn't as effective against Kiski as it was against Norwin, Altoona still is averaging 173.5 yards on the ground. Avery Howsare has 163 yards, while Mante Barnes is up to 135.
"They're a big, physical team. They like to run the ball off-tackle and pound you into submission," Ruane said. "You know it's coming, and they still bring it and do a nice job of it."
The road hasn't been very hospitable to the Lions over the last few seasons. Altoona's only win away from home in 2011 was at Kiski; that was the Lions' first road win since early 2008. Franco, though, isn't a believer in any kind of road jinx.
"I think overall, [being at home] might be a little bit of an advantage, but I think that's really more of a reflection of where the program's been," Franco said.