Altoona football faces tough task

John Franco has taken part in some wondrous things in his nearly 30 years as a head football coach, but he’s not Merlin or Gandalf.

He’ll tell you those guys might be out of their element, too, when it comes to curing what ails the Altoona Area High School football team’s offense these days.

“We’ve just got to keep practicing. There is no magic formula,” said Franco, whose team has scored seven points in its last two games, both losses. “We’ve got the best kids playing, and we’ve been playing more than one kid at each position to try to get some competition. But all the cliches apply. You don’t quit. You just keep repping and repping and repping. It’s just keep practicing until you get better.

“Unfortunately for us, the competition gets better considerably better the next couple of weeks.”

The Mountain Lions will find themselves across the field from the top two teams in the Foothills Conference standings in the next 10 days, hosting perennial power Gateway on Friday night before traveling to McKeesport next Friday. Both teams are 3-0.

The 1-2 Lions will kick off with the explosive Gators at 7 p.m. at Mansion Park.

Altoona enters the contest averaging less than 150 yards per game and less than 4 yards per carry, and that’s even including Kevin Givens’ 68-yard run last week that set up the Lions’ only score of the game in a 19-7 home defeat to Penn-Trafford.

Altoona’s offense is a fairly young group with a number of juniors filling key roles, and it’s the first time Franco ever has had 11 new starters on one side of the ball or the other. Franco, however, hasn’t been sugar-coating anything, although he admitted concerns about the group losing confidence have to be considered.

“At this point, you’ve got to man up,” Franco said. “You can’t be lovey-dovey with them. You see what you see. You look at the tape. You show them, ‘here are the problems, and here’s what we have to do to correct the problems.’ I think you have to be realistic with them, and you have to convince them that you can outwork this.”

Although Franco lamented having players like quarterback Eli Mencer and tight end Colby Fink miss practice with injuries that have further held back the continuity the offense has been able to build, he doesn’t seem to be upset with the effort nearly as much as the execution.

“I thought we practiced better last week, but I’m just frustrated because I know it isn’t where it has to be, especially to compete with who we have to compete with,” Franco said. “You just have to hope you keep making progress, and you take it from there.”

Unfortunately, Mencer, who already was dealing with a groin injury, hurt his ankle last week; he’s Altoona’s leading rusher. If Mencer can’t go, junior Devin Miller would get the call under center.

Gateway would offer quite a baptism of fire for any quarterback making his first start. Montae Nicholson is one of the most highly recruited college prospects in the state and leads what might be the most physically gifted secondary of any high school team in Pennsylvania.

Just ask anyone who watched the Gators dismantle previously undefeated Kiski Area last week.

“There first touchdown, interception return. Second touchdown, interception return. Third touchdown, they put on their only drive of the game, but one of the plays was a 50-yard run. Their fourth touchdown was a fumble they recovered inside the 10-yard line that they converted. Next touchdown was a kickoff return. Next touchdown was a kickoff return,” Franco said. “The turnovers weren’t Kiski playing poorly. It was these great defensive backs breaking on the ball on what you thought would be a good open receiver. They’ve got a bunch of Division I athletes. They may play a little sloppy, but they more than overcome it with the way they are athletically.”

Donnie Militzer, who spent the last 11 years as an assistant coach in the WPIAL and on the college level, inherited all that talent when he was hired in May to take over for Terry Smith, who took a coaching job at Temple after being forced between continuing to coach the Gators or remain Gateway’s athletic director. Gateway almost stumbled out of the gate when they edged Latrobe by two points in its opener.

“You know right away you’re going to get everyone’s best shot in this conference. I think the first week the kids saw the compete level goes way up. Everyone knows about our superstars, but not everyone knows we had five or six starters on each side of the ball who were starting for the first time,” Militzer said.

Gator quarterback Jimmy Moore has thrown for 500 yards and six touchdowns without being picked off, but he sees Altoona offering a challenge.

“If Givens doesn’t have any Division I offers, it’s a crime, because he’s the best player I’ve seen on film on both sides of the football, and Mencer’s pretty good, too.” Militzer said. “Altoona’s a physical team. They are going to grind it out on you, and they don’t make many mistakes. They make you work.”