Opening the season with back-to-back emotion-charged games can be reason for concern, but it shouldn't be a problem for the Central and Tyrone high school football teams when they square off on Friday night at Roaring Spring Athletic Field.
The series between the Golden Eagles and Scarlet Dragons has developed into one of the area's more entertaining rivalries, with Tyrone holding a 4-3 over the last seven meetings which includes a pair of playoff clashes and four games that were decided by 10 points or less. Since 2008, the squads have combined for three District 6 Class AA championships, and this year's encounter is rife with Mount League and 6-AA implications, too.
Both teams are 1-0. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.
The matchup itself is like a fine meal - Central is the defending 6-AA champion, while Tyrone was a district semifinalist last year and returns most of its starters. To add a little extra flavor, the contest pits Dave Baker, a veteran of four decades on the sidelines, against one of the area's youngest coaches in Tyrone's Jason Wilson.
Wilson underwent his baptism of fire last week when his Eagles held off Bellwood-Antis, 18-14, in the schools' annual "Backyard Brawl."
"It's good to get that first win," Wilson said. "It's not going to get any easier this week, though."
Although Central graduated 10 starters on offense and 18 overall, the Scarlet Dragons dispatched Tussey Mountain - the reigning District 5 Class A champion and one of the top contenders for that trophy again this year - by a 34-12 count in their opener last week after jumping out to a four-touchdown lead.
"We thought we played pretty well offensively. Our offense was about as good as we could have expected it to be. Defensively, we were good at times, but we have a little bit of work to do there," Baker said.
After averaging an area-best 40.0 points per game in 2013, the Dragons didn't seem to miss much of a beat with their new-look starting lineup. At the heart of things was the two-headed combination of Mike Mock - Central's only returning offensive starter, but a receiver last season - and Noah Benton, who combined for 273 of the Dragons' 322 yards and ran or passed for four of their team's five touchdowns.
Tyrone, meanwhile, held Bellwood to 251 yards and made a defensive stand at the end to preserve last week's win. Before becoming the Golden Eagles' head coach, Wilson was the architect of a Tyrone defense that, in 2013, that forced 30 turnovers, held five opponents to single digits and gave up more than 21 points just three times.
"Their defense is real fast. They're really experience on defense, and they're really solid on defense," Baker said. "It's going to be hard to sustain a whole lot and to get big plays. It's going to take patience on offense to make sure we don't give up the ball and maintain field position. They won't understand that until they see it's the case. It's not our fault. We just have had a lot of long (plays)."
The ability to hit big plays has been a staple of Central football the last couple of years. Tyrone, though, might be in as good a position to weather the lightning strikes as anyone. The Eagles found themselves down 14-0 to Bellwood and managed to step up and pull out the victory.
"That was good to see, because anyone could have packed it up and headed home. Our guys just stuck with it and kept at it. I thought that was huge not only for our players but for our new coaching staff," Wilson said. "Now that that's happened, it's something we can always refer back to. Hopefully we don't find ourselves in that situation. But Central has a lot of good skill players."
While Wilson inherited a team with a lot of experience at most positions, he entered this season having to replace quarterback Erik Wagner and running back James Oliver, one of the leading rushers in the area over the last two years. Aleic Hunter, though, ran for 151 yards in his first start at tailback, while Garrett Hunter hit on 9-of-16 passes for 130 yards.
"Aleic ran hard. The line helped move the way, but Aleic was finding the hole, running hard and getting the extra yards," Wilson said. "Garrett has the typical first game at quarterback in a big game like that. The performance wasn't bad. I think as we move forward, he'll keep gaining confidence."
Baker doesn't expect a letdown from either team.
"It's kids' nature to be able to (be focused for two games in a row)," Baker said. "In some ways, they are better off and their approach is better if they are playing games they know will be challenging."