The week before Thanksgiving usually means it's time to start getting ready for basketball season in Saxton and the surrounding communities.
Not this year.
Flying about as low on the radar as a 10-2 high school football team averaging in the neighborhood of 40 points per game can, Tussey Mountain has put its boys winter sports on hold as it tries to finish up its business on the gridiron.
Tonight, that means a date at Bedford Area High School's Bison Stadium with defending champion Berlin Brothersvalley in the District 5 Class A championship game.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
This is the first time the Titans played in the district finals since 2005, when it was defeated by Windber in Bedford. Tussey only made it this far one other time, winning a one-game playoff for the championship in 1988.
"It's a good feeling, good for our program, good for our school," Titans coach Josh Smith said. "I definitely feel more support. We've always gotten good support, but that support is even gone above and beyond what we normally see. The kids are really responding to it. They're excited."
Tussey is the third seed. They've made it here by beating sixth-seeded North Star in the quarterfinals and then thumping upstart Shade - which had upset Titans rival Northern Bedford a week earlier - in the semifinals.
The Titans have done it in large part because of a high-powered offense that averages 428.8 yards per outing. Tussey's Wing-T features a pair of halfbacks who've rushed for more than 1,200 yards and average better than 10 yards per carry in Darrin Sipes and Daniel Taylor, while quarterback Quinn Barnett quietly has thrown for 1,341 yards.
"Historically, we've done well against Wing-T teams. But I don't think we've seen a Wing-T team as multi-dimensional as what they are," Berlin coach Doug Paul said.
And yet, with all the flash and dash, the thing that might have gone unnoticed that really turned the jets onto the Titans' fortunes this year was its play on the defensive side of the ball. After surrendering 21 points or more in its first three games, Tussey has only allowed more than 14 twice in its last nine starts, once in a win over Williamsburg, the other in a close loss at Mount Union.
"Right around the Juniata Valley game, we started to play great defense. Offensively, we were pretty strong, but, in the Juniata Valley game, we started to put it into high gear defensively," Smith said. "Since I took over four years ago, that was one of our big stress points. The defense has to get better. If you want to contend for District 5, if you want to contend to have great seasons every year, you have to play great defense."
Barnett and Sipes both have more than 100 tackles, while Wyatt Brumbaugh leads Tussey with six sacks and two fumble recoveries. The Titans are allowing a paltry 3.8 yards per opponents' rushing attempt.
If the Titans can match that figure tonight, it will be huge. Berlin thrives on its ability to run the ball, rolling up more than 3,100 yards this year in just 11 games - the 10-1 Mountaineers received a first-round playoff bye as a result of capturing the top seed, then dispatched Meyersdale 14-7 in the semifinals.
The Mountaineers' primary weapon is 5-foot-8, 162-pound sophomore Braden Fochtman, who enters tonight with 1,921 yards and 22 touchdowns on 211 carries. He's had four 200-yard games and a pair of 300-plus-yard performances, running for a career-high 352 in a win over Portage.
"They're similar to us," Smith said, "except they're running through one kid. The biggest thing is going to be our tackling. If we tackle well, put them in third-and-long situations, I think we have the advantage."
Where most of Tussey's interdistrict experience has come in other sports like basketball or, in Sipes' case, track, Berlin is no stranger to this stage. The Mountaineers have won 5-A championship five times.
"I thought we had the talent [to get back to the finals], but, at the same time, we had to replace a lot of players from last year's team. That was a concern of mine," Paul said. "We were expecting to be here, but, at the same time, it was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Next year, we'll be returning about eight starters on defense and seven on offense."
Tussey might have gotten a little overshadowed by the strong seasons other Bedford County teams and players have put up this year. It's getting harder to miss the Titans, though.
"Our kids look at it as a challenge. Hey, Berlin's the defending champ. Good. We're the underdog. Good," Smith said. "We're going to show them what we have, and we're going to do the best to do what we do."