Penn Cambria came into the 2012 high school football season with extraordinarily lofty goals - including a possible District 6 Class AA championship - and the Panthers seemed well on their way to realizing them with four lopsided wins to start of the year.
Then came a four-game losing streak that left the Panthers frustrated reeling.
However, Penn Cambria's dreams haven't died despite their coach resigning (See story page B4).
In fact, although the Panthers currently are on the outside looking in for this year's postseason, Penn Cambria still actually controls its own destiny when it comes to making the playoffs.
The Panthers are just one of 16 area schools still mathematically in the running for a District 6 or a District 5 playoff berth with two weeks to go until the brackets are finalized. Some, like Bellwood-Antis and Central, already are making plans for probable first-round home games. Others, like Central Cambria and Moshannon Valley, are hanging on by their fingernails, hoping to help themselves and get loads of luck.
Luck, though, is something of which Penn Cambria hasn't had in abundance. Apparently a team on its way to hosting a playoff game or two a month ago, the Panthers have dropped three games by a touchdown or less and were tied with undefeated Richland heading into the second half last week. As a result, Penn Cambria has slipped into a tie for ninth place in a 6-AA classification where only eight teams advance.
Penn Cambria's situation is interesting, but it also is among the more simple. The Panthers trail Juniata by 30 points for the eighth and final playoff spot. However, they can more than make up that difference by winning their last two games - next week's home game with Somerset alone could be worth 170 or 180 points.
District 6 uses a point system to determine its playoff teams and seeds. Teams get 100 points for beating a team of the same enrollment classification. That number increases by 20 points for beating a team one class larger, 40 for two classes larger, and so on, and it decreases by the same increments for beating teams of a smaller classification.
Teams also get power points for every win, based on the number of victories that opponent has.
For example, by beating a team with seven victories gets a team 70 extra points. For Penn Cambria, Somerset is worth 120 points because the Eagles are in
Class AAA and then another 50 points because they are 5-3; that number would go up to 60 if Somerset beat Cambria Heights this week.
Penn Cambria first must beat Panther coach Ernie Fetzer's former school, Westmont Hilltop, on the road Saturday afternoon to be in position to overtake Juniata, which is at a disadvantage because it plays smaller schools primarily. If both Penn Cambria and Juniata win out, Penn Cambria probably would finish around 30 points ahead of Juniata, give or take 10 or 20 points either way depending on the power points.
That would mean likely half of the 6-AA field would be comprised of teams from the Altoona Mirror coverage area: Tyrone and Cambria Heights, while not absolute locks, would have to flame out completely in the last two games while the star align for a couple of teams lower in the rankings for them not to join Central. Heights is in the most precarious position because it finishes the regular season with the two most challenging opponents in Somerset and Northern Cambria, but the Highlanders have been on such a roll of late it seems very likely Heights will win both and host Tyrone in an all-area first-round contest.
Central, meanwhile, cannot overtake Richland for the top seed, but the Scarlet Dragons should wrap up the second seed; they close out with 1-7 Huntingdon and 4-4 Everett. The second seed is a big deal, because it means the Dragons will host both in the first round and semifinals with the finals being played at neutral Mansion Park.
There could be a little jockeying toward the middle of the Class AA field. Ligonier Valley, currently third, has a huge game with 6-2 Northern Cambria on Friday that should decide the Heritage Conference title and will have a big say in whether or not the Colts make the playoffs in Class A, but more on that later.
Should Ligonier prevail there, the Rams will play another presumably playoff-bound foe in Bald Eagle Area in week 10. If Ligonier drops either of its final two, it could fall to very easily as far as seventh, especially if that loss comes at the hands of BEA. Forest Hills is tied with BEA for sixth place right now, 130 point behind Ligonier.
If the playoffs began today, the Class A field, in order, would be Bellwood, Bishop Guilfoyle, Portage, Juniata Valley, Penns Manor, Northern Cambria, Homer-Center and Bishop McCort, in that order. But it's unlikely to remain that way.
Bellwood will finish first, barring an upset loss to Glendale this week. Guilfoyle, though, needs to beat Bishop McCort to clinch second; otherwise, Portage, Valley and defending champion Penns Manor could sink the Marauders all the way to fifth by winning out themselves.
Penns Manor and Homer-Center play each other this week, a point bonanza for the winner but a potential seed-dropper for the loser. Portage, the surprise team based on what it had entering the season, has two pivotal games to close with at home against Blairsville - still in playoff contention itself - and at Homer-Center on Nov. 2. Valley, at 7-1, would be the favorite in both of its last two games, but, considering they are against wild-card West Branch with its potent power running game and Huntingdon, which faces much stronger competition in the regular season, neither game is one the Hornets can win just by showing up.
Northern Cambria could do the most to help itself or experience the greatest negative effects. The Colts only are 40 points ahead of 10th-place Glendale, so it really can't afford to lose to both Ligonier and Heights. Conversely, winning those two games would score NC at least 370 points.
Blacklick Valley and Glendale are on the outside looking in at present, but they have hope because of Northern Cambria and Homer-Center's difficult final games along with McCort having to play BG. Glendale, though, needs to find a way to beat Bellwood to secure a spot, and Blacklick has a big toss-up game against North Star this weekend that it really could use.
It seems unlikely any team below the top five will win out. However, if that happens and Northern Cambria goes 0-2 to finish, Glendale or Blacklick could sneak in; if the two Viking teams tie, Glendale wins the tiebreaker, because its opponents have a far superior winning percentage.
The District 6-9 Class AAAA and District 5-6-8-9 Class AAA subregional brackets also are shaping up. Things already are pretty much set in Class AAAA, where DuBois already has clinched a spot. State College can punch its ticket by beating Mifflin County on Friday, but a Little Lions loss leaves the door open for the Huskies to grab a spot in the district finals with a little help in week 10.
Clearfield has nailed down the top seed in Class AAA, and University Prep of the Pittsburgh City League is all but assured of being second. Somerset, Punxsutawney, Bradford, Johnstown and Bellefonte all remain alive for the last two spots in the tourney. Somerset can clinch a slot by beating Cambria Heights; however, if the Eagles lose, there's a realistic chance that three of the four positions could be filled by teams from District 9.
SUBHED: District 5
Berlin Brothersvalley is in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the District 5 Class AA playoffs after Northern Bedford fell to Bellwood-Antis last week. Northern Bedford's best chance to regain the top spot in the standings is for Windber to knock off visiting Berlin next week while the Black Panthers take care of their own business against Williamsburg and either Punxsutawney or Bradford - whichever doesn't make it into the District 9 championship game - in week 10.
Tussey Mountain can join Northern Bedford in the postseason by winning one of its last two games or having Conemaugh Township lose one of its last two. The Titans, though, are almost certain to end up in sixth place and having to travel to North Star or Windber for a quarterfinal game. Shade is a virtual lock to wind up in fourth.
Chestnut Ridge and Everett already have claimed the spots to face off in the 5-AA championship game on Nov. 9 at Northern Bedford's Panther Community Stadium. The only thing left to be determined is which will be the top seed: Ridge has a three-point lead on the Warriors heading into this week, but both of the Lions' last two regular season games - against Allegany and Bedford - will be big tests, while Everett hosts 3-5 Claysburg-Kimmel this week before playing the underdog against Central in its finale.