With John Franco and Ray Reitz each guiding one of the top Class AA programs in the western half of Pennsylvania in the last 15 years, it seemed natural that they would find themselves across the sidelines from one another at some point.
"We were always going to meet," Reitz said.
It didn't work out, as Franco's District 6 championships at Tyrone never coincided with Reitz's state playoff trips with Jeannette.
The former IUP teammates, though, finally face off tonight trying to resuscitate WPIAL Class AAAA squads, as Franco takes his Altoona team, coming off a win he hopes will build confidence and momentum, to Latrobe to take on Reitz and the Wildcats in a Foothills Conference game.
Altoona is 2-4, while Latrobe is 1-5. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m.
Franco and Reitz met as players at Indiana in 1974. Franco was a running back. Reitz played on the offensive line.
It's apparent that there's a lot of fondness still between the two.
"I could spend three hours talking about Ray Reitz. He's an amazing guy," Franco said with a chuckle, breaking his usual serious pregame demeanor. "If there's one guy I never thought would get back into coaching, it would be Ray, and I think he would tell you the same. But he's had a remarkable career."
Reitz and Franco ran with the same circle of friends, although Reitz said they had different personalities.
"We were pretty good friends. I was a little bit more of a partier than John was. I'm putting that mildly," Reitz said. "John was a good person. John got along with everybody."
Their coaching careers have paralleled each other. Both spent some time at smaller schools, then cut their teeth on the quad-A level - Franco in an earlier eight-year stint at Altoona, Reitz as a longtime assistant - before winning PIAA championships in Class AA. Franco's came in 1999, Reitz's in 2007.
They each parlayed that success into a return to the Class AAAA ranks. Reitz took over at Latrobe in 2009, guiding the Wildcats to one playoff appearance followed by a pair of winning seasons in which they just missed the WPIAL tournament.
"I'd run into John. I'd go to scout a team, and John would be playing the team I was there to scout," Reitz said. "I'd always follow John, because John's done a good job everywhere he's been."
Franco is trying to continue that in his return to Altoona. The Mountain Lions took a big step in the right direction last week by holding on for a 17-14 win over visiting Hempfield, which came to Mansion Park with a winning record.
That snapped a four-game losing skid for the Lions, with three of those setbacks coming by seven points or fewer.
"We were so close, and we had the lead in two of the three games. It wasn't like we were making major mistakes. It was just like we weren't executing plays where we would give up a big return or something like that. We were close and just couldn't close the deal," Franco said. "I didn't think we played that well [against Hempfield]. But, the good thing was, in the past, I think they might have folded. They might have said, 'Here we go again' and found a way to lose the game. But they hung in there and made a couple of first downs on our last drive in the fourth quarter, which ate the clock up.
"It was a good win to get a win," Franco added. "I felt good for them. I think they felt more relieved. Finding a way to win games is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, things to do when you are trying to turn a program around."
Altoona quarterback Brennan Luciano completed 9 of 11 passes in surpassing the 100-yard mark for the second straight game. Jake Diviney caught seven of Luciano's throws, while the Lion defense held Hempfield to 9 yards rushing.
"The thing about Altoona is they play hard, and I think that's a credit to their coaches," Reitz said. "They don't do anything they can't do. What they do, they do well. They're kind of simple and basic, but everything they do, they do very well."
Latrobe's only win came over Fox Chapel. However, statistically, the Wildcats have been solid, at least offensively. Quarterback Logan Carns has thrown for 337 yards and run for 327 out the Latrobe veer. Lucas Monteparte leads three other Wildcat rushers with more than 100 yards, checking in at 236, and Adam Drake and Robert Vasinko have 11 and seven receptions, respectively.
"We've been giving up big plays. Then, once adversity hits, we don't come back," Reitz said.
An injury forced Carns to play receiver last week against McKeesport, but he might be healthy enough to go back under center tonight.
"When he has the ball, he's a threat. He's dynamic," Franco said of Carns. "When he's in there, their offense really moves."