B-A, NB rivalry on tap Friday night

Oddsmakers generally give college football and NFL teams three points as a home-field advantage.

But just how much is tradition worth?

The Bellwood-Antis Blue Devils and Northern Bedford Black Panthers would tell you it has a great deal of value. Winner of more than 550 wins all-time, Bellwood has endured just one losing season since 1976 and is on a run of nine double-digit win campaigns in 13 years. Northern Bedford has won more than 61 percent of its contests since the formation of the school in 1957 and has won nine postseason games over the last 17 years.

Both squads sustained substantial graduation losses from teams that went a combined 22-4 last season. However, they’ll be squaring off once again this week with the championship of the Inter-County Conference’s Gold Division hanging in the balance.

Kickoff on Friday at Bellwood’s Memorial Stadium is set for 7 p.m.

“The word tradition transcends into confidence. The kids believe in themselves,” said B-A coach John Hayes, who has won 287 games in 34 years at the helm of the Blue Devils. “Certainly, you have to work with them, but those kids have a belief, a past record of success. Even though there are a lot of new faces, they come from a positive background leading up to where they are now.”

Hayes expected to have nearly half his starters back this year from the 2012 team that reached the PIAA Class A semifinals, but he had to find new starters at three positions and had to thrust sophomore Charlie Burch into the starting quarterback role when a couple of upperclassmen didn’t come out for the team.

It hasn’t made much of a dent in Bellwood’s invincibility in the ICC, where its won all six of its games this year by at least two touchdowns after a season-opening loss to out-of-conference archrival Tyrone.

“The thing that impresses me is how they reload,” said Northern Bedford coach Jeff Batzel, whose team came out on the short end of a 20-0 score when the Devils and Panthers met in last year’s showdown in Loysburg. “They put people into situations, they coach them up, and the machine rolls on.

“They are solid, they are very fundamentally sound, they don’t make mistakes, and they believe in themselves. They’ve got quite possibly the longest in-conference winning streak in the state.”

In fact, you need to go back to 2007 to find the last time the Blue Devils lost in the ICC and even further to find the last time they lost a game to a team currently in the conference.

While Burch has played well, the focal point of this year’s Devils is the three-pronged running attack of Casey Gray (874 yards), Tanner Snyder (636 yards) and Jake Stapleton (237 yards).

“I think we’re about on schedule. We thought we’d be competitive. We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Hayes said. “We knew we’d have some playmakers, but we also knew we had some positions that had to grow and improve over the course of the year.”

Northern Bedford actually was less of a sure thing entering this season, with only seven lettermen returning, one starter back on the defensive side of the ball and five starters back total. However, only a loss to Mount Union separates the Panthers from a perfect record – Northern Bedford enters Friday’s contest tied with the Trojans for second place in the division, one game behind Bellwood, so a Panther win could form a three-way tie for the top spot.

“It’s been a great ride. These kids have really stepped up,” Batzel said. “It truly is a testament to the tradition of the program, the belief that we’re Northern Bedford, that we’re supposed to win and the work ethic that kids at Northern Bedford have and I’ve always been impressed by.”

It hasn’t hurt that one of the Panthers’ returnees is quarterback Blake Over. After winning a PIAA medal in track and field, Over has come back better than ever in football, putting up numbers that have rarely been seen since Steve Taneyhill was throwing the ball at Altoona more than 20 years ago. Over leads the area with 1,673 yards passing and 22 touchdowns with three regular season games remaining.

“Maturity, experience, leadership, he’s grown in all those areas. He is making great decisions,” Batzel said.

Over also leads the Panthers with 405 yards rushing and has made as many interceptions as he has thrown. Containing him somehow will be vital for Bellwood if the Devils are to win the game.

“One of the best defenses is to control the football offensively. Not just that, but you have to put some points on the board,” Hayes said. “Not only that, but if you have the ball 4-to-5 minutes and score and they have it two plays and score, it negates itself.”

All-area receiver Kyler Diehl sat out the last game for Northern, which boasts the second-leading scoring offense in the area, but Batzel said he’ll play on Friday.

“I guess we kind of reload in our own way, too,” Batzel said.