Judging by his time running quarterbacking camps and watching film, it's easy to see Altoona Area High School's John Franco as a cool, calculating tactician who approaches coaching football like a game of chess.
Franco, though, recognizes the emotional aspect to the game. And he's more than willing to take advantage of it.
"Every little bit of motivation helps, and we'll use that," Franco said.
Mirror file photo by J.D. Cavrich
Altoona’s Manny Span sacks the Norwin quarterback earlier this season.
"That," in this case, is the knowledge that the Mountain Lions have a chance to make it into the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs for the first time with a win tonight against Connellsville at Mansion Park.
"This would be the first time since 2007 Altoona's made the playoffs," said Franco, whose Lions take a 3-5 record into the regular-season finale. "We hope that adds a little bit of motivation. It's also our seniors last home game, and it would be nice to go out on a winning note."
Meanwhile, a couple of counties to the west, Hollidaysburg will attempt to clinch its second WPIAL Class AAA playoff berth in three years when the 3-5 Golden Tigers travel to 2-6 Indiana for a Greater Allegheny Conference game.
Tiger coach John Barton often talks about not looking ahead, but this is one instance where he, like Franco, can deviate from his usual approach.
"There's no way around it. It's a big game," Barton said with a chuckle. "I mean, it's everything.
"It's really a neat opportunity. We play in a very difficult conference. We're not going to apologize if we make it. If we make it, we earned it, as far as I'm concerned."
Hollidaysburg has an easy path to the playoffs: Beat Indiana and be the fifth-place team to automatically qualify from the Greater Allegheny.
However, there's also a more circuitous path to the postseason for the Tigers. If they lose and Highlands loses to Knoch, it will create a three-way tie for fifth in which each of the teams have beaten each other. The highest applicable tiebreaker is point differential, where Hollidaysburg already trails Highlands by six - the WPIAL only counts point difference within section games and with a maximum of 10 point by game, so, whether you lose by 10 or 100, it only counts as 10.
The Tigers also could be in the wild card mix. However, if Hollidaysburg loses and Highlands upsets Knoch somehow, the Tigers are out.
Altoona needs some help. First, the Mountain Lions need to help themselves by knocking off visiting Connellsville tonight. Then, they have to hope for Latrobe to beat Kiski, which holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Altoona.
If Altoona wins and Kiski wins, Altoona still could be part of a plethora of teams in the hunt for the one wild card berth.
For the Mountain Lions, Franco said, it's quite a position in which to be after opening the year 1-4.
"It's been a big learning experience for both [the players] and me. I think we've made progress each week. I think we've gotten a little better," Franco said. "Their understanding isn't as fast as I would have liked, but we are coming. It's first-year growing pains."
Barton and the Tigers know about pain, but more from a literal sense. Hollidaysburg has been dealing with a higher than usual amount of serious injuries down the stretch as it tried to make the postseason.
Barton said it is possible tight end/linebackers Kaleb Springer and Dan Fleck could be ready to play meaningful time this week. Running back/linebacker Greg Dinges, however, is out.
In Indiana, having a couple of extra experienced linebackers could be key. The Indians run a flexbone offense popularized by colleges like Air Force, Navy and Georgia Tech. Led by DeQuan West, who has 383 yards this season, Indiana is at its best when it is running the ball effectively; Indiana averages almost 300 yards rushing when it wins, which it has done twice in five weeks after starting off 0-3.
Indiana hung with 6-2 Knoch last game, only losing 20-14.
"They're a very, very good two-win football team. They've gotten continually better. I saw tape of them early in the year, and they're not the same team," Barton said. "They're an option team, but they also throw the ball very well. Defensively, their front four is big and strong and quick."
Connellsville, too, is a dangerous two-win team. Some thought the Falcons, who made the playoffs last year, were a good beat to finish in the upper half of the Foothills Conference this season. That didn't happen, but Connellsville has upset Hempfield.
Also, like Indiana, Connellsville runs an unusual offense that requires discipline to defend - the wing T. Six-foot-four junior Jade Maher calls the signals and passed for 142 yards in a win over Norwin. His favorite target is 6-2 Darrell Ross. Running backs Zachary Cree and Jordan McCrae - a Greensburg Central Catholic transfer - both have had 100-yard games recently.
Altoona only has allowed one opponent to rush for more than 200 yards all season.
"We haven't seen a wing T team this year," Franco said. "When you see it over and over, you get pretty adept at stopping it, but when you only see it once a year or once every two years, it becomes difficult. We have to read our keys. They key to stopping the wing T is you have to be really disciplined."
For both Altoona and Hollidaysburg, it's there for the taking, and there's plenty of incentive to take it.
"I told the kids, 'Shoot, this is the week we put it all together, we get it done, we get back to playing fundamental football, and we take care of business,'" Barton said.