B-A, Tyrone always loaded with talent

Every two or three years or so, the stars of the season-opening Backyard Brawl between Bellwood-Antis and Tyrone change, but the excitement and anticipation is always at a fevered pitch.

Gone to graduation are, among others, star running backs James Oliver of the Golden Eagles and Casey Gray of B-A and last year’s Brawl hero, Eagles quarterback Erik Wagner, but there will still be a lot of talent on Tyrone’s Gray-Veterans Memorial Field at 7 tonight when the rivals square off before an expected large crowd.

“There’s no question that every year both teams have a lot of motivation, and there’s a lot of talk from December until now,” veteran B-A coach John Hayes said. “It’s what the teams are looking forward to, and it’s what the communities are looking forward to. It’s a big deal.”

There’s even a new coach involved. Jason Wilson, who coached the defense under Steve Guthoff, has taken over as Tyrone’s head coach, and he’ll be experiencing the rivalry from a new perspective.

“We’re really excited right now,” Wilson said. “We’ve have good weeks of practice. We’re a little nervous staff-wise with the new staff coming together, and the bugs need to be worked out. I was talking to my assistants on Monday and I said ‘I kind of wish today was the Bellwood game.’ “

Tyrone won last year’s game, 20-6, to take a 51-27-1 lead in the series. Wagner completed 14-of-17 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown and intercepted B-A QB Jake Burch twice while Oliver, who led the area in rushing with 1,646 yards and 29 TDs, was running for 109 yards and two scores.

Garrett Hunter, a 6-foot-1, 201-pound senior, is expected to step under center for the Eagles, and speedy 5-5, 147-pound senior Aleic Hunter will likely step into the tailback spot.

“We have a first-year quarterback, tailback and center (Mark Lewis),” Wilson said, “and there’s still a little bit of a question of how are they going to react in a pressure sitiation. I have no doubt all three can be really good players. We’ll see how they do.”

“They always seem to to play with a great deal of confidence and enthusiasm,” Hayes said of Tyrone. “They have new guys in the backfield, but they have a strong group up front. A lot of times these games are determined in the trenches.”

If that’s true, B-A’s smallish defensive line will have to find a way to find cracks in an offensive line that has both guards, a tackle and a tight end returning as starters for the Eagles.

“We’re kind of pleased with what we’ve seen so far,” Hayes said of the defensive line. “We have some youth there, but they’re kind of athletic. We don’t have big guys, but they have good speed. Hopefully, they carry the day.”

Cameron Wood, a 6-0, 170-pound senior, is expected to step into Gray’s spot in an offense that has only two starters back from last season. One of those returners is Burch, who was 10-of-17 for 116 yards and a touchdown in last year’s Brawl.

“I think he’s going to be a big part of the offense this year,” Hayes said. “He’s matured physically, and he has that whole year of experience under his belt. We feel real good about our balance.”

“They have a good quarterback and some shifty running backs,” Wilson said. “I think we have another good defense. We just have to keep attacking and keep everything in check.”

The Brawl is usually a launching pad for success down the road for both teams. Last year, the Eagles went 9-3, while the Blue Devils went 8-3.

After all the gameplanning and drilling, the team that’s hoisting the Backyard Brawl Trophy after the game might be the one that handles the pressure of the game the best.

“The game is full of emotions,” Wilson said. “They can’t let the emotions get to them. They have to control the adrenaline. There are things that are going to our way, and their are things that aren’t going to go our way.”

“It’s going to be a packed house, and there’s going to be a lot of noise,” Hayes said. “It will be hard to communicate at times. But, you have to stay focused and keep things in perspective.”