Two weeks ago, the Altoona Area High School football players and coaches were doing a lot of soul searching. Their record was 1-4 and several close losses seemed to have the Mountain Lions' season on the verge of spiraling out of control.
Fast forward to today: Altoona is one game under .500, strung together back-to-back wins and won on the road for the first time since September of 2008 and even is on the cusp of a playoff spot.
"We were all happy," Mountain Lion senior quarterback Brennan Luciano said. "Getting both of those felt great. Winning feels great, because most of us aren't used to it."
Luciano and the Lions will endeavor to keep their recent hot streak going on Friday at Woodland Hills High School when they are put to the test by perennial WPIAL power Pittsburgh Central Catholic in non-conference action. Kickoff at the Wolvarena in Turtle Creek is slated for 7 p.m.
Altoona is in position to evening its record by holding off Hempfield, 17-14, two weeks ago and then coming back in the second half last Friday to post a 34-23 win at Latrobe.
"Winning breeds confidence, and you can see the confidence level picking up. That's a nice change," Altoona coach John Franco said. "The two games that we won were games that we had to struggle with. That's probably better than winning handily, because now they have the confidence that they can make the plays to win a game and overcome adversity that they couldn't earlier in the year."
No on exemplifies that more than Luciano. After splitting time as the junior varsity starting quarterback with Matt Dry last season, Luciano won the varsity job in the preseason this year.
Luciano only passed for 100 yards once in the first four games - going for 105 in a loss to Kiski - and had one touchdown throw.
Since then, though, Luciano is 31-for-47 for 504 yards and three TDs. In the Latrobe game, Luciano clicked on 12-of-16 passes for 235 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Mante Barnes was on the receiving end of five of those completions, with four for 117 yards going to Jake Diviney.
"I've been more comfortable in the pocket, and I've been more relaxed," Luciano said. "I have more confidence in my receivers and linemen."
Luciano said the increased repetition has helped, too. Franco said there were a number of factors at worked in Altoona's progress in the passing game.
"Teams have been really stacking the box against that, and we've taken advantage of that," Franco said. "Earlier in the year, we were primarily running the football, and we were running it pretty well. Teams were loading up against the run because our passing game wasn't where it needed to be. That's developed, and I think that usually takes longer to develop."
That development probably will have to continue to give the Lions a solid shot at winning this week. Central Catholic is 5-2, its wins coming by a combined score of 152-11. The Vikings' losses have been at the hands of Seneca Valley and North Allegheny.
The Vikings and Lions used to be co-members of the Big East Conference of the WPIAL Class AAAA ranks but have gone separate ways through offseason realignment. Central Catholic won the two conference encounters with Altoona, 42-7 and 38-10, but Vikings coach Terry Totten, a former IUP teammate of Franco, said this is a very different team.
"We're a very young football team with a lot of new guys out there. It seems like we make a move to get better and we take a step back," Totten said. "We've had some injuries, too. We've been having trouble establishing a true identity.
The Vikings defense has three shutouts. The offense is built around a running game averaging better than 200 yards per game. Luigi Lista-Brinza leads the way with 567 yards despite missing two games.
"There's a surge in confidence," Franco said, "and we're going to need every bit we can get playing a team like Central Catholic."