Altoona trying to end with success

With nothing definite yet in efforts to secure a 10th game and the Mountain Lions out of the playoff picture, Altoona Area High School football coach John Franco said he’s approaching tonight’s possible season finale at Connellsville the same way as any other game.

“We’re just trying like heck to get a win,” Franco said.

Franco and his Lions will hope to snap a seven-game losing streak and build some momentum with a solid nucleus coming back for next season by finishing their Foothills Conference season on a positive note.

Kickoff for the game is 7 p.m. The homestanding Falcons are 2-6, 2-5 in the section after a 19-0 win over Latrobe last week.

“Like so many of our opponents this year, the strength of that team is their quarterback [Jade Maher]. He is excellent,” Franco said. “I’m amazed at how many good quarterbacks we’ve seen this year.”

Franco, though, continues to be more immersed in repairing his own team’s problems.

The Lions are coming off their third shutout loss off the season last week to Pittsburgh Central Catholic. Altoona managed minus-6 yards rushing and 65 yards in total offense, bringing its per game total offense down to 128.4 yards per game.

They haven’t scored in the fourth quarter since the first game and haven’t scored in the first quarter all year – Altoona’s only given up 24 first-quarter points.

“We’ve been close. We just haven’t played well enough offensively to warrant getting a win,” Franco said. “I’ve never been part of a team that had a [plus-10] turnover ratio and averaged so few penalties – we’re doing all the little things right – and we just can’t make plays on offense.

“Our problem is we have a lot of trouble blocking. We are very small up front, and we are overmatched most nights. And that’s where everything stems,” Franco added. “We lost our best lineman, Jake Scheinberg, in the first quarter of the McKeesport game, and it’s been downhill ever since.”

Franco might find a kindred spirit on the opposite sideline tonight in Connellsville’s Dave McDonald. The Falcons came into the year expecting to be quite a bit better than they were last year, when they won two games, but their only wins have been over Norwin and Latrobe.

In recent weeks, with the playoffs looking more and more unlikely, McDonald, like Franco, has been devoted more to teaching bigger-picture lessons. In McDonald’s case, though, it’s been of a more dire nature.

A month ago, McDonald’s 13-year-old daughter, Megan, was admitted to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh from surgery complications after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. McDonald hoped she’d be able to return home this week. The younger McDonald could often be found at her father’s practices.

“There were about five days where it was very, very scary,” said McDonald, who had his assistant coaches hold a bigger rein on the team while he kept tabs on his daughter. “I think it taught our players a good life lesson, and they’ve been very resilient, and I’m proud of how my assistant coaches handled the situation.”

On the field, Connellsville’s star is the 6-foot-5 Maher, who just committed to Virginia Military Institute. He’s 71-for-139 this season for 798 yards and nine touchdowns, only throwing one interception. Altoona has picked off nine passes and only allowed six touchdowns through the air this year.

Altoona held the Falcons to 193 yards in last year’s 27-12 win at Mansion Park. McDonald thinks the play in the trenches will play a big role in who comes out on top tonight.

“When I watch Altoona, I have a hard time believing their record is the way it is,” McDonald said. “I feel they’re a little bit like us.”

Franco feels this game could turn out to be a major one for the Mountain Lions – a number of his key players are juniors and sophomores.

“It’s important any year to end on a high note. The worse you are, the more important it is,” said Franco’s whose first team at Tyrone won its last game to finish 5-5, then went to the PIAA semifinals the following year. “We are really hurting right now, physically and mentally. The challenge is keeping them focused enough to want to end the season in high style.”

Altoona has been rumored to be in talks with Hollidaysburg about playing next week if neither makes the playoffs, but the Golden Tigers are still alive for a playoff spot, leaving the Lions looking for an opponent.

“We’re looking around, seeing who’d be available, who’d be interested,” Franco said. “We’re trying to get a 10th game, but we haven’t had anybody say definitely we’ll do this.”