Cambria Heights football has accumulated so many monkeys on its back over the years that the Highlanders could have worked as Mark Wahlberg's stunt double when they remade "Planet of the Apes."
Heights removed one of them last week by scoring its first win against Forest Hills in nearly 30 years. And, although their coach downplays the historical aspects, the Highlanders now will try to exorcise another of their demons tonight when they head to Cresson for a Laurel Highlands Conference Section 1 clash with Penn Cambria that kicks off at 7 p.m.
The Panthers have beaten the Highlanders 14 straight times. If that's not enough frustration, several of the games have been extremely competitive. In 1998, Penn Cambria won, 23-22. In 2004, it was 13-0. The next year, the score was 28-20.
Mirror file photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Cambria Heights coach Jarrod Lewis speaks to his team during a timeout.
The last two meetings have been particularly frustrating for Heights supporters. The Highlanders dropped those games by a grand total of 10 points.
"I think we're two pretty similar teams," Heights coach Jarrod Lewis said, "so, every time we get together, it's always a close battle, and there's a lot of hard hitting. I would anticipate the same type of thing."
The teams are tied for second in the section with 2-1 records and are jockeying for spots in the eight-team District 6 Class AA playoff bracket. Heights is 3-2 overall, while Penn Cambria is 4-1 and smarting from an eight-point loss at Bishop Guilfoyle on Saturday night; Guilfoyle defeated the Highlanders by 10 a couple of weeks earlier.
"I hope [the players] are better than I am," Panthers coach Ernie Fetzer said when asked how the team was reacting to its first loss of the season. "Even though I give tremendous credit to Bishop Guilfoyle, I think our kids know we still had an opportunity to win. We said going in we needed to be battle-tested, and I don't think we were. Hopefully, this will give us a gauge on what we have to do.
"I thought coming into the season that Cambria Heights would be one of the best teams. I still feel that way. They return eight starters on both sides of the football, and they have some very physical kids, like BG," Fetzer added. "They pose a real threat because of their offensive prowess, and they're good on defense, too. I think it will be a really tough game."
Sparked by the backfield of Tyler Crawford, Donnie Contorchick, Ben Myers and Nathan Bearer, Heights has rushed for better than 200 yards in three of its last four games. Penn Cambria, meanwhile, counters with a defense, led by linebackers Mack Behe and Devin Lawhead, that has held three opponents to fewer than 140 yards on the ground and has yet to give up more than 14 points in a start.
"I don't think there'll be many surprises," Lewis said. "We do many things very similar. I think we could take their playbook and run their offense and they could take our playbook and run ours with a few minor changes."
Adding to the familiarity is that Heights assistant Darrin McLaurin was a longtime member of Fetzer's staff at Westmont in the 1990s. Lewis, in fact, coached with Fetzer at this summer's Ken Lantzy Finest 40 All-Star Classic.
"We share a lot of ideas," Fetzer said of McLaurin, "except for this week."
Lewis and the Highlanders have something else in common with the Panthers - they felt the disappointment of losing a close section game. Heights has bounced back from its loss against Guilfoyle with a pair of wins in which they outscored the opposition, 58-6.
"I think our kids are a resilient bunch," Lewis said. "When we lost to Bishop Guilfoyle, we came back with two good weeks of practices. Sometimes you just have to go back to the drawing board, back to basics and clean some things up, and we've had two good games since then."
Heights is closing in on the team's first winning season since the Highlanders went 7-4 in 1998. Lewis, though, is trying to keep the focus off what has come before and put it firmly in the present tense.
"I keep telling the kids we're not fighting against history. We're just fighting against the team that we're playing now," Lewis said. "That went for Forest Hills, as well."
Penn Cambria went into last week's BG game with some injuries and sustained another one when two-year starting tight end Seth McLendon went down with what looked to be a serious knee injury. Fetzer said McLendon won't play and is probably out for the year, which will alter some of the packages the Panthers utilize and makes the line between the squads even finer.
"I think it's going to be one of those games where they team that takes care of the football and the team that makes the plays is going to come out on top," Lewis said.