In pro wrestling, a famous saying is that "to be the man, you have to beat the man."
That seems to apply to team sports, as well.
Tyrone Area High School has been the Ric Flair of District 6 Class AA football teams, wearing the title eight times in the last 17 years, including 2011. Now, a new challenger has emerged, and the Richland Rams are trying to be crowned the kings of Space Mountain.
The Golden Eagles, though, will see how much tradition and savvy are worth on Friday night when they travel to the Johnstown suburbs for a rematch of last year's district title game against the top-seeded and undefeated Rams. Kickoff for the district semifinal clash is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"The tradition and the legacy and what the expectation at Tyrone ... I don't know if you need extra motivation at this point when you are playing a district semifinal against an outstanding opponent, but the expectation when you put on a jersey at Tyrone is, I don't know if you can win every single game, but you play a certain way every game," first-year Eagles coach Steve Guthoff said. "I think that's there, and I think that helps, but Richland's played a lot of playoff games, too."
After opening the year 0-2, the Golden Eagles have won eight of nine games, their only setback coming by a point against still-unbeaten Clearfield.
Tyrone opened the playoffs with a 14-7 victory at home against Cambria Heights.
"My personal preference is I'd like to win by more than a touchdown," Guthoff said with a laugh. "But, the good part about that is that you've been battle-tested in the playoffs. After it's done with, it's probably a better experience going forward than to coast through the first game. Even last year, Bedford gave us a game in the first game. That might have been the toughest game we had before [the state semifinals against] probably Aliquippa."
While junior James Oliver - who needs 151 yards to reach 2,000 rushing - gets much of the attention for Tyrone, the Eagles defense has quietly been putting together a great year. Tyrone only has allowed 88 points over the last nine games.
That unit figures to be put to the test this week: After being held to 42 points in its last two games, Richland's scoring average is down to a robust 36.3 points.
The Rams scored 62 points against Bedford and put up 51 against Westmont Hilltop this year. Richland's top weapons are quarterback Matt Shaffer, who is completing almost 64 percent of his passes for 1,539 yards while running for another 485, and running back Tanner Solarczyk, who has rushed for 1,514 yards and averages better than 9 yards per carry.
Kyle Flick has 40 receptions for Richland, while Luke Shertzer has 37.
"They have an excellent passing game, probably the best passing game we've seen this year. They're not as reliant on the run game [as they were last year], but they still can run the ball out of all the formations. It's just a remarkably well-balanced team," Guthoff said. "We're really stretched on defense just to be able to contain them."
Richland coach Brandon Bailey downplayed the revenge factor of facing Tyrone again, but he did admit that last year's meeting had an effect on the Rams returnees.
"Getting to that [championship] game is a big point in the development of a program. Being on that stage at Mansion Park is pretty overwhelming for young kids," Bailey said. "You could see right after the game was over and right after we wished our seniors farewell, our underclassmen got together and said, 'We're on a mission. We've got to get back there. We better get in the weightroom and get in shape.'"
Bailey had no hesitation in revealing the Rams' primary objective for this game.
"We need to stop their run game," Bailey said. "They've got an excellent run game with one of the top backs in the area. We have to do our best to limit [Oliver's] carries and the amount of yards."
Twenty-six of Tyrone's 45 plays last week were Oliver runs, going for 175 yards and a game-clinching touchdown. But Guthoff said this has to be more than a one-man show.
"We definitely have to mix it up more," Guthoff said. "Their defense is pretty darn good. If we rely on James to carry us, we're making Richland's job easy."