Mountain Lions face big pain in Vikings

John Franco woke up last week with severe back pain that relegated him to coaching his Altoona Mountain Lion football team’s game against Latrobe from the pressbox.

“I don’t know what it is. It’s not real good,” Franco said. “It’s just been an unlucky year, I guess.”

Franco isn’t sure whether he’ll be in the sidelines or getting a higher vantage point tonight when his 1-6 Lions try to get back on the winning streak against a team that has turned out to be a major pain for everyone in the WPIAL Class AAAA ranks this season, Pittsburgh Central Catholic.

The Vikings, fresh off a 27-0 whitewash of defending PIAA champion North Allegheny, bring a perfect 7-0 mark to Mansion Park for a 7 p.m. nonconference kickoff.

“Honestly, this is one of the best teams I have seen in two years,” Franco said of Central Catholic. “They are so talented, but, more importantly, they are so well-coached.”

The challenge the Vikings face, though, has taken a backseat to Franco’s focus on his own team. Last week’s 20-14 loss to Latrobe was the Lions’ sixth in a row after an opening-game victory at Nowin.

“We’re at the point where we can’t even worry about the opponent,” Franco said. “Really, the last three weeks we have been doing nothing but fundamentals, very basic stuff.

“Even though it’s late in the season, we’ve got a lot of young players, we need to just worry about let’s keep getting better, let’s not get discouraged. Let’s not quit. Let’s just play as hard as we can. It gets tough, but I think [the players] are giving us great effort.”

Altoona was a plus-3 in turnover differential against Latrobe, making it a plus-10 for the season. The Lions also committed three fewer penalties than did the Wildcats and were close in total yardage at the final horn, but it wasn’t enough.

“When you watch us, we aren’t really making mistakes. We are just getting run over. We’re just not very big, and we don’t have much speed, and that’s hurting us,” Franco said.

Junior Eli Mencer rushed for 85 yards for the Lions against Latrobe and is 22 yards behind Kevin Givens for the team lead for the season. Junior receiver Sean Steave turned in his second straight productive game – he’s caught nine passes over the last two weeks to bring his season total to 13 receptions. Devin Miller, meanwhile, threw for 106 yards; Miller’s a junior, also.

As for himself, Franco still isn’t sure what exactly is ailing him. He thought it might be a sciatic nerve issue.

Franco thought things worked well last week without him on the sidelines, and he has been playing with the idea of repeating that plan tonight.

“I actually really like being up in the pressbox. I actually feel I have a better handle on things,” Franco said. “I have been wanting to do it several times over the years. I almost did it several times at Tyrone, but I just backed away from it. I was going to do it last year to get a better feel for things. This year, I was toying with it and toying with it, and then I was forced to do it.

“You get such a better perspective on things up there, as long as you’ve got someone organized to take care of things on the sideline. I thought our guys did a good job of doing that Friday night, so I’m still considering [going up to the booth].”

As for tonight’s opponent, Central Catholic looks every bit as good as their record.

The Vikings only have given up 27 points all season. On offense, they have a big-time Division I quarterback recruit – J.J. Cosentino has given a verbal commitment to Florida State – who only has had to throw the ball 49 times because Central Catholic hasn’t been truly tested yet.

“We’re not a pass-happy team. He’s definitely a part of what we do. I don’t want to give the impression that he’s not. But we like to be a tailback-oriented offense,” Central Catholic coach Terry Totten said.

That tailback this year is Luigi Lista-Brinza, who enters tonight’s tilt with 920 yards and 10 touchdowns on 98 carries. Riley Redman has added 646 yards on 62 attempts.

Totten was very low-key concerning last week’s win over North Allegheny.

“It was a big conference game over a quality opponent, so we were excited about getting the victory,” Totten said.

Despite Altoona’s record, Totten respects the Mountain Lions.

“They can hit you with [Givens] pretty good,” Totten said. “[Miller’s] a pretty athletic quarterback, and [Steave’s] a good receiver. I think, overall, they are a better team than their record shows.”