John Barton admits that "event" weeks like homecoming always make him a bit nervous.
"I'm not a hoopla guy, and I was that way when I was a player," said Barton, now in his 14th year as head football coach at Hollidaysburg Area High School. "I didn't like distractions when I played, and I struggle with distractions now when I coach.
"We have a really odd week. They're doing their skits. Then the kids have off Thursday and Friday because we've got in-service. So it's like the perfect storm of distraction."
Mirror photo by J.D.?Cavrich
Greg Dinges (42) sets up a running lane for Tiger teammate Eli Hargis.
Despite Barton's reservations, homecoming might be a good thing for his Golden Tigers this year. Hollidaysburg is 3-0 at home this season, where they've won four of their last five.
That could turn out to be a nice advantage as the 3-2 Tigers host 4-1 Hampton in a key Greater Allegheny Conference game rife with playoff implications - even if neither coach wants to discuss those openly yet - as the WPIAL regular season enters its final four weeks.
Both teams are tied with Knoch for third place in the conference in a battle for four automatic playoff qualifying spots. Kickoff on Friday is 7 p.m.
"I don't stress that," Barton said of the impact a win against Hampton could have on the Tigers' chances to reach the postseason. "We focus on it as a conference game, and a conference win would take us closer to our goals, in which, obviously, playoffs are included. The idea is to focus on winning this game. It's a conference game. It's a big conference game."
Hampton showed its quality last week by stunning state-ranked Knoch, 20-17. The Talbots forced three turnovers, got a pair of touchdowns from running back Frank Bello and 144 yards through the air from quarterback Jon Nigro, who hooked up on a 40-yard strike to 6-foot-5 Collin Luther for the deciding score with 3:15 left.
The Talbots are guided by Clearfield native Jacque DeMatteo, whose uncle, Lyle Domico, coached at Cambria Heights, Curwensville and Johnstown Vo-Tech.
"For the players, I was very pleased and happy. I just thought it was a gutsy performance on their part," DeMatteo said of the Knoch win. "The community has been receiving the kids really well not just for that game, but all year."
Nigro, who passed for 287 yards in a win over Indiana, has been the focal point of the Talbots offense, but Hampton is more defined by its balance and a defense that is giving up a hair more than 15 points per game.
"They have good skill kids, but they are very, very good up front. They don't do a whole lot offensively, but they execute, and they move the chains when they need to," Barton said. "Defensively, they're very aggressive. They're good, they're physical, and they run to the ball well."
Hollidaysburg rebounded from back-to-back one-sided road losses against Thomas Jefferson and Knoch to return home last week and crush Derry, 49-16. In that game, Tiger quarterback Brian Urban had his best passing game, throwing for 136 yards and a score, while also rushing for 125 yards and three TDs.
Kaleb Springer made three catches for 106 yards.
"We made progress. I went into that game with the mentality that we needed to throw, because, if we didn't work hard and commit to it, then we weren't going to get any better. We took steps in the right direction. We still have work to do, but we're getting better, and that's encouraging," Barton said.
Barton also praised his secondary, which gave up 186 yards but only allowed 13 of 29 throws to be completed and picked off two.
The Tigers have forced 15 turnovers this season, including at least two in every game. Hollidaysburg's defense has held all but one opponent to fewer than 200 yards rushing, as well.
"Overall, I am happy with our defense," Barton said. "I know that sounds like crazy talk when we gave up about a hundred points in back-to-back weeks against TJ and Knoch, but we can see a difference from last year."
While Hampton beat Knoch, Hollidaysburg also holds a victory over the only team that beat the Talbots, Greensburg Salem. DeMatteo said preparing for the Tigers isn't easy.
"They're physical up front, and they're big. They have a great ground attack, and, if you fall asleep, they can hurt you by passing the ball," DeMatteo said. "On defense, they are able to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. They have a lot of good athletes. It should be a good game."
Although Barton doesn't like the hype this week, this seems to be a matchup deserving of it.
"You just emphasize to the kids to stay grounded. Football in this conference is why all this other stuff is happening. We have homecoming and that where people come back to a football game. It's not homecoming and 'oh, by the way, let's play a football game,'" Barton said. "We just try to keep focused on what we're trying to accomplish."