John Barton and Greg Botta coached together in the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association East West All-Star Football Game a few years ago, and they immediately hit it off.
"We talked a lot of football," Barton said. "What came out of it was I had a lot of respect for him as a coach and as a man."
The two remain in touch, but Barton will be hoping he can discern something from their familiarity to use to his advantage this Friday when he takes his Hollidaysburg Golden Tigers to Murrysville to take on Franklin Regional, coached by Botta, in a key WPIAL Greater Allegheny Conference tilt.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Hollidaysburg is 3-3 overall and 3-2 in the conference. Franklin Regional is 5-1 overall and 4-1 in the conference, its only loss coming in the season-opener against Greater Allegheny pace-setter Mars.
"Regardless of the outcome, we're going to be friends. If anything, you want to do better against your friends," Barton said. "He's pretty good about not letting anything go that I could use against him."
The Panthers have come out on top in each of the last two years against the Tigers, but neither was easy. Hollidaysburg led after one quarter in both games before falling 27-20 in 2009 and 28-9 last season.
Botta said he expected nothing less from a Barton-coached team.
"John Barton is a tremendous football coach," Botta said. "He does a fantastic job. He's all about the kids. He makes them better. He's a stickler for detail. He leaves no stone unturned. He'll be ready for this football game. He always gives us fits, and I expect the same thing to happen this week."
Hollidaysburg will be trying to bounce back from a 28-14 loss at home to Hampton. The Tigers actually matched Hampton in total yardage, getting 104 yards rushing from the combination of Reid Miller and Greg Dinges and 97 yards through the air from Brian Urban.
"It was a tough game. It was a game that we had very high expectations for," Barton said. "We feel - and I think the kids feel - that we kind of let that one slip away by giving them opportunities. That was a loss I think that bothered them, and I think they're looking forward to this week."
One of the Tigers' top players is a question mark for the game: Kaleb Springer. Hollidaysburg's leading receiver and starting linebacker was injured last week.
If Springer can't go, Barton said Dan Fleck would get the start at tight end, with Zach Weaver stepping in on defense.
"He's been playing well," Barton said of Springer. "Anytime you lose a kid who's starting and playing well, if affects you."
Expectations also were high for Franklin Regional entering the season after the Panthers went 11-1 and reached the WPIAL semifinals last season with a number of underclassmen starting. Botta, though, felt the media had overly-hyped his team in the preseason, saying he graduated six players on each side of the ball that went on to play college ball as well as changing six assistant coaches in the offseason.
"Based on who we had coming back, I guess people just expected us to walk away with it. But there are a lot of good teams in this conference. We had a lot of kids that were untested, so I just want to put that to rest," Botta said. "What I'm pleased about is how the team has come together."
After opening the season with a 21-17 loss to still-unbeaten Mars, the Panthers have outscored the opposition, 172-23, including a big 23-13 win over Knoch a week ago. Botta has five rushers with at least 100 yards, led by Dane Brown with 333, and quarterback Nico Lodovico has thrown for 733 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Thirteen different Panther players have reached the end zone.
"They have a really nice mix of players who have size - they have a 280-pound fullback [Adam Mihoci], for crying out loud - with some really nice skill kids," Barton said. "Obviously, we're going to have to take care of the football. We're going to have to have consistency offensively. And out defense has to continue to play well."