Mountain Lions try to get on right track

Altoona made the WPIAL Class AAAA football playoffs last season and finished 4-6 despite dropping four of its first five games.

The game that started the Mountain Lions’ turnaround was a 17-14 win over Hempfield to snap a four-game losing streak, and Coach John Franco is hoping history repeats itself when the 1-4 Lions visit Greensburg to take on the Spartans tonight in Foothills Conference action.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

“It’s funny. I think we’re so much further ahead [of last year] in so many areas, except for points, and [even] that isn’t that big of a difference. But the competition is so much better,” Franco said. “I think we have played better in every phase of the game except for offense.

“You can’t always measure in wins and losses. I definitely think we’re further ahead.”

The Lions will need to be. Hempfield is 3-2 after a six-point loss at undefeated Gateway. The Spartans only other setback was in the first game to McKeesport, and they handed the 2-1 Kiski Area a 27-0 defeat two weeks ago.

“They are a speed team. They probably have the best running back that we’ve seen all year, Joey DeFloria. We’ve seen Gateway and McKeesport, and neither have a back as good as him. He’s just at another level,” Franco said. “He returns punts for touchdowns. He returns kickoffs for touchdowns. He’ll run the ball. He’ll catch the ball. He does it all.”

The 6-foot-10, 195-pound DeFloria is the fifth-leading rusher in the WPIAL this season, rolling up 797 yards on 109 carries. He also paces the team in receptions and receiving yardage and has gotten into the end zone nine times.

Altoona won last year’s contest at Mansion Park by holding the Spartans to 9 yards on the ground, but DeFloria missed that game with an injury.

If opposing teams load up to stop DeFloria, 6-4, 210-pound quarterback Tyler George can hurt you. He’s completed more than half his passes for 359 yards and run for an additional 289.

It will present a big challenge for the Altoona defense, which has been the Lions’ strongpoint in the first half of the season. Even in allowing more than 300 yards rushing to McKeesport last week, Franco had praise for the group.

“We hit people really well. We were flying to the ball. When you look at what they did, they scored on a 21-yard drive when they blocked a punt, they scored on an 8-yard drive off a punt return, and they scored off a 10-yard drive when we fumbled,” Franco said. “All their first-half points came off of two turnovers and a return.”

Last year was the first time Hempfield made the playoffs in four years and only the Spartans’ third postseason appearance in 15 years.

“We thought we’d be a pretty decent team. We had some pretty good kids coming back,” Hempfield coach Rich Bowen said. “Obviously, we’d like to be 5-0, but we think we’re playing some pretty good football. We lost to two pretty good football teams, and those were games we could have won.”

The Spartans were 3-2 when they came to Altoona in 2012, though. Bowen hopes his players remember and learned from that night.

“Altoona, they don’t beat themselves, just like last year,” Bowen said. “They don’t turn the ball over much. They’re going to keep pounding the ball at you. They’ve got a good athlete at quarterback [Eli Mencer], a good, strong big running back [Kevin Givens], and they’re just going to come at you.”

The Lions will have to make some adjustments with the blocking for Givens and Mencer this week because linemen Jake Scheinberg and Marcus Novosel both were hurt last week. Franco said Scheinberg definitely was out for at least two weeks.

Sophomores Brandon Murtiff and Troy Livermore filled in last game, but they are 30-50 pounds lighter than the players for whom they were coming in.

“Those two kids are pretty small, but they’re as tough as they come. They gave every ounce of themselves,” Franco said. “Probably the weakest part of our team is depth along the line.”

If Altoona hopes to make it back to the playoffs this season, the Lions have to start winning soon. Franco, though, says that cannot be the focus.

“We’re not even at the stage where we can look at it. We still have so much work to do teaching the system, getting them to play the way we want them to play,” Franco said. “We’re not there yet.