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Altoona still searching for wins

October 4, 2012
By Philip Cmor ( , The Altoona Mirror

While John Franco's attempts to get the Altoona Area High School football program back on track have shown signs of bearing fruit, it hasn't become apparent in the win column, yet.

That's all that matters to Franco.

"One thing that I learned from Joe Paterno when I first started coaching was that there are probably four or five plays in a football game that determine the outcome. You never know when they're coming, and you have to play every play as hard as you can anticipating that," Franco said. "It takes discipline to practice that way to get to that point. We have not accomplished that yet.

"I told the players we are one play away in each game from being 4-1," Franco added. "It's been awfully frustrating. No doubt about it."

Instead, the Mountain Lions are 1-4 because of a pair of seven-point losses and a four-point setback to McKeesport last week.

Franco has consistently said he won't congratulate the team for just being close. If he's looking for an example of how quickly a turnaround can happen, all he needs to do is point across the field this Friday at visiting Hempfield's sideline.

The Spartans haven't fielded a winning team since 1997, but first-year coach Rich Bowen has them at 3-2 as they come to Mansion Park for the 7 p.m. WPIAL Foothills Conference contest.

"We were pretty confident we could build a good program. It's been coming faster than we thought. The community response has been fantastic. We've had packed houses at our home games, and the school's been really excited," Bowen said. "We know there's going be bumps in the road. We've hit a couple already this year with injuries and some losses. But the experience has been great."

A successful high school coach with a track record of reviving programs, Bowen has spent the last couple of years giving college coaching a try at Waynesburg. But the drives from his North Huntingdon home were getting to be too much, and when the position opened at Hempfield, he pursued it.

Despite its struggles on the field, Hempfield has one of the largest enrollments in District 7 and some top-notch facilities, which helped to encourage Bowen that the Spartans could be a winner.

A spread team, the Spartans have wins at McKeesport and at home against Kiski and Latrobe, scoring at least 33 points in each of those games.

"They've got an outstanding quarterback [junior Ty George] that makes plays. They have two outstanding running backs [juniors Joey DeFloria and Skyler Carkuff]," Franco said. "The thing that I've noticed is [George and DeFloria] come up with play after play after play. They don't make many mistakes. They don't make many penalties or turn the ball over, and we've been like that, too. But the thing that impresses me is, when they need a play, they seem to come up with the play."

George and DeFloria have combined for more than 1,100 yards of total offense and 12 touchdowns.

Altoona's defense, meanwhile, has continued to perform well. The Mountain Lions only have allowed more than 20 points just twice.

The Lions have continued to struggle on offense, though. Altoona has scored five touchdowns in the last four games and was held to a season-low 43 yards on the ground last week, although quarterback Brennan Luciano passed for a season-best 141 yards.

Franco refuses to consider that the Lions' problems have just been bad luck or growing pains.

"When you say you are snake-bit, that's putting the blame on something else. I'm tired of this," Franco said forcefully. "Let's put the onus on ourselves. We have to make that play. We are capable of making that play. Let's do the job ourselves."

Bowen thinks the Lions are capable of doing that and thinks Altoona presents some problems for his Spartans.

"They're 1-4, but they are much better than that. Coach Franco does a great job," Bowen said. "What scares me the most is that they're a big, physical football team. It looks like they like to pound the football at you."

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