Cambria Heights High School football coach Jarrod Lewis was a sophomore lineman at the school back in 1998, when the Highlanders last qualified for the District 6-AA playoffs.
"I got very limited playing time that year,'' Lewis chuckled. "We had a pretty good team that year. But I started the next two years.''
The Highlanders' return to the playoffs this year is much more special for Lewis. Cambria Heights visits Tyrone for a district quarterfinal game tonight. Both the fifth-seeded Highlanders and fourth-seeded Golden Eagles carry 7-3 records into the 7 p.m. kickoff at Gray Field.
"It's extra special for me because I think this group of kids deserves it, I really do,'' Lewis said of the Highlanders' playoff berth. "They've worked so hard for this, and it's a great opportunity. Our goal before the season started was to make the playoffs, and this team has really worked hard together and the players have all encouraged each other. Making the playoffs is a big deal for our school.''
Tyrone has been a success story of its own in its first season with Steve Guthoff as its head coach. Guthoff had huge shoes to fill in replacing John Franco, who led the Golden Eagles to three PIAA Class AA state-championship game appearances and one title before moving on to his second coaching tenure at Altoona this season.
Tyrone has won seven of its last eight games after an 0-2 start.
"We played two good teams [Bellwood-Antis and Central] the first two weeks of the season, and we had a tough start,'' Guthoff said. "We weren't really playing very good football for the first two weeks of the season, but our kids deserve a lot of credit. It's so easy to make excuses rather than look in the mirror and say that we all needed to do a better job, including the coaches. Everybody stepped up.''
Heights' running game is led by senior back Tyler Crawford, who has rushed for 1,028 yards on 199 carries and 17 touchdowns. Two other senior running backs, Donnie Contorchick and Ben Myers, are expected to play this week after sustaining injuries. Myers has been out since early October with a broken thumb, and Contorchick suffered a leg injury in the Highlanders' Coal Bowl loss at Northern Cambria last week.
"Obviously, they're both important to us, and we're optimistic that they will play,'' Lewis said.
Since losing, 28-0 at Central in the second week of the season, Tyrone's defense has surrendered a total of only 81 points in the Eagles' last eight games. That occurred in spite of the fact that several players on the defensive unit are first-year starters.
"Defensively, the players really started to get a feel for what they were doing at their positions after the first two or three games,'' Guthoff said.
Tyrone's offense is led by junior running back James Oliver, who has rushed for 1,674 yards on 203 carries and 25 touchdowns this season.
One of the keys to tonight's game for Heights will lie in trying to limit Oliver's production.
"Oliver is a stud,'' Lewis said. "He's the real deal, and their offensive line does a great job of opening up holes for him.''