Even with an almost entirely new starting offensive line, the Juniata Valley High School football team is off to another strong start and is actually minutes from being unbeaten heading into week 4.
The one thing that could sweeten it all for the Green Hornets - and possibly send them to another level - would be a win this Friday against Bellwood-Antis.
"We haven't beaten them, so it would be almost as big a deal as winning districts," Valley coach Mike Smith said. "Bellwood's always good and well-coached. Anytime you can beat someone that is good, that's an accomplishment. We strive to be the best and beat the best."
The Hornets and Blue Devils - also 2-1 - will square off at 7 p.m. at Valley's A.R. Simkins Field in an Inter-County Conference interdivisional matchup.
Bellwood has won 12 in a row against Juniata Valley since the Hornets scored a 16-12 victory in 1996. Four of those meetings have been in the postseason, though, and last year was the fifth time in the last eight encounters the final difference was 13 points or less.
"It's a team we have a little history, a little rivalry with. They've been pretty good. We've been pretty good. We've matched up a couple of times in the playoffs," B-A coach John Hayes said. "It's a game that has a lot of interest. The kids are close. It's a rivalry, not the same as the Tyrone rivalry, but it's high on our list of things, and it starts a stretch on our schedule that's going to be pretty competitive."
Game: Bellwood-Antis Blue Devils (2-1) vs. Juniata Valley Green Hornets (2-1)
Where: A.R. Simkins Field, Alexandria
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
The coaches: Juniata Valley - Mike Smith (66-29, ninth year); Bellwood-Antis - John Hayes (281-91-2, 34rd year)
Series record: Bellwood-Antis, 23-9 (first met in 1959)
Last meeting: Bellwood-Antis, 47-34 (Sept. 21, 2012)
This week's test for the Devils will be followed by trips to 2-1 Mount Union and Everett, which is the defending District 5 Class AA runner-up and came mere seconds from knocking Northern Bedford from the unbeaten ranks last week. After returning home to host Southern Huntingdon, Bellwood will get to match up with NBC itself.
It might be the stiffest challenge Hayes' team has faced to its ICC supremacy in some time. Although Hayes doesn't like to discuss it, Bellwood has won 43 straight conference games and 61 in a row against teams currently in the conference.
"We don't use it as a motivating force at all. Our motivation comes from trying to play better this week than we did last week," Hayes said. "You can't snow kids. We try to play well and we try get better. That's what we're going to take into this week's game. We know that they're good competition. They've got some good skill kids. The quarterback's been there three years. They have talent, and they have good competition themselves, and it's at their place."
Valley's quarterback is Caleb Taylor, who has converted on 63.2 percent of his passes this season for 344 yards and three touchdowns. He has yet to be intercepted.
Taylor has added another dimension to a Valley offense that typically is more reliant on the run, although the Hornets still average more than 200 yards per game.
"He's a very good athlete. When you have a good athlete, someone that has experience and who loves the game, you tend to lean on them a little more than other kids. He wants to take that responsibility on," Smith said. "He's been reading the defenses very well. I'm proud of the way he's been executing."
Taylor was a known commodity entering the season, but Valley's line wasn't. Smith has four new starters on the offensive front, and only linebackers Jesse Claar and Kyle Smithmyer are back from last year's defensive front seven.
The Hornets have performed very well on the defensive side, though, holding opponents to 116 yards on the ground through three weeks. Bellwood, meanwhile, is coming off back-to-back 300-yard rushing performances, and Devil tailback Casey Gray leads the area with 383 this season.
"Our defensive line has played pretty well, and our linebackers are young, but they've done a really nice job," Smith said.
Bellwood had a few more question marks that is anticipated this year, when 2012 starters Ethan Hunter and Owen Worthing decided not to come out for football after helping the Devils reach the PIAA Class A semifinals. B-A has put together two impressive wins, though, after dropping its opener to Tyrone.
"We have improved," Hayes said. "The question is is it enough as we get into this next stretch of the schedule."