The second year in the second John Franco Era for Altoona Area High School football begins tonight, and, while the players have a much better idea what to expect now, Franco himself isn't quite as sure.
That's because Franco's Mountain Lions return less than a dozen varsity lettermen. Linebacker/defensive end Kevin Givens, linebacker Colby Fink and defensive back Tyler Wray are the only Lions with significant starting time on their resume.
"No matter what scimmages you played, no matter how many practices you had, the game experience is so much different. In our case it's even more so, because we have so few starters back," Franco said. "It's one of those things where you're really anxious to see how they perform under game pressure."
In spite of its vastly different starting lineup, the Lions will try tonight to build on last season's 4-6 finish and WPIAL Class AAAA playoff appearance when they travel to North Huntingdon to meet up with Norwin in a Foothills Conference game. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
There definitely a lot of holes that need to be filled if Altoona is to get back to where it was - and possibly to improve - on last season. Givens is the top returning rusher with 272 yards in 2012. The other returnees combined for 21 yards on the ground.
No one that threw a varsity pass last season is back; Eli Mencer appeared set to line up under center. And Jaret Berardinelli is the top returning pass catcher with two receptions.
Game: Altoona Mountain Lions (4-6) vs. Norwin Knights (2-7)
Where: Norwin Knight Stadium, North Huntingdon
When: Tonight, 7:30 p.m.
The coaches: Altoona - John Franco (234-88-2, 28th year); Norwin - Art Tragesser (174-112-3, 28th year)
Series record: Tied, 1-1
Last meeting: Altoona, 35-14 (Aug. 31, 2012)
n records from 2012
The tradeoff might be, though, that these players have a full season under their belts in Franco's system. They also went 6-2 on the junior varsity last year.
"We probably had more talent last year, but it was really tough to get them to understand the system and to change their ways. It really was the third system that senior group had played under," Franco said. "These guys are a lot more adapted to our system, but we're fighting the inexperience bug. But there's no doubt this group is farther ahead in what we want to teach them."
Franco said that put the 2013 edition ahead of the curve during the preseason.
"I really have liked our practices. I think we practiced so much better than we did last year," Franco said. "We progressed really well. I'm impressed at what we've been able to get in and how hard the kids have tried. I always said that's the key."
The Lions thumped Norwin in last year's season opener, scoring a season-best 35 points and winning by a season-high 21. Altoona rushed for 244 yards that night - also a season-high by more than 100 yards - and picked off three passes.
That was a very young Knight team that took the field that game, though. Norwin coach Art Tragesser played three quarterbacks.
Freshman Nick Amendola eventually emerged as the Knights' starting quarterback and went on to lead the team with 671 yards passing and 489 yards rushing, accounting for 10 touchdowns.
"He's the key to the game, as far as stopping them," Franco said. "They're going to try to get the ball to him and do a lot of spread stuff, and he's an effective passer."
"It's always nice to have your quarterback back. I keep thinking he's a little bit older than he is. I have to remind myself that he's just a sophomore," Tragesser said.
This is a very important game for Norwin as they try to turn their program around. The Knights were 0-9 in 2011.
"Confidence is such a big, big factor for our kids. We have to have something positive happen," Tragesser said.
Marcus Novosel, a 270-pound tackle, was questionable to play for the Lions. If he can't go, Franco said sophomores Brandon Murtiff or Troy Livermore - both about 60 pounds lighter - probably would step in.
"Game one is a tone-setter," Franco said. "You've been preparing all summer for this. Everybody's in the same boat. Everybody wants to play well to justify the hard work they did. Until you play game one, you don't really know what you have."