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Altoona seeks home playoff game

The Altoona Area High School football team has been climbing a ladder in the last month.

First, the Mountain Lions clinched a winning regular-season record. Then they secured a spot in the postseason.

All the while, Lion coach John Franco was reluctant to get too caught up in reaching goals he had set for the team because he was focusing on the next hurdle.

Franco doesn’t have to do that tonight. Clearing this hurdle directly leads to accomplishing the next goal.

Altoona hosts Connellsville tonight in its regular season finale. By beating the Falcons, the Mountain Lions will earn the right to host a WPIAL Class AAAA playoff game next week, a first for the program since it reentered the league five years ago.

Franco thinks that is worth talking about.

“That’s something that we’re really focusing on. We would love to get a home playoff game,” Franco said. “Our main focus is to get win No. 7 – it’s been a long time since we’ve done that – with the added incentive of a home playoff game. This is a nice extra incentive, and we’ve definitely talked about that.”

Kickoff tonight at Mansion Park is at 7 p.m. The Lions are 6-2 and riding a four-game winning streak.

Connellsville is 3-5 overall.

Altoona is trying to reverse a 2-7 finish just one year before.

“We thought that we would be better this year. We played so many kids last year that were coming back that we were ready to take the next step,” Franco said. “We didn’t really set a number of wins, that wasn’t any one of our goals. But we did feel we could be competitive in just about every one of our games. So this isn’t all that shocking.

“We aren’t to the point where we expect to win, but we realize that we had a great opportunity to win this year. So we talked about it, and we set our goals high.”

With Pitt recruit Kevin Givens returning along with two-way line stalwart Jake Scheinberg, athlete Eli Mencer, starting quarterback Devin Miller, top receiver Sean Steave, veteran linemen Alex Martynuska and Marcus Novosel, top-notch defensive player Nick Lytle and place-kicker James Metzgar, the pieces certainly were in place for a marked improvement, although getting to five wins seemed more likely.

To get an eclectic mix of personalities to reach their full potential as a group required Franco and his staff to find just the right buttons to push. To hear the veteran Lion coach describe the roster, it sounds like sometimes he was trying to play one of those games of electric football popular in the 1960s and 1970s rather that coaching real football.

“This is a team with great senior leadership, but you can’t let them go, or they’ll all go off in their own direction,” Franco said. “But the thing that I love about this team is when you tell them something and you show them something, man, they buy into it.”

What Franco is selling his Lions this week is that Connellsville is a dangerous team that won’t just roll over. It’s going to take an effort similar to those that have brought Altoona their previous six wins.

“We really think this is the best team that we’ve seen in the last three or four weeks. They’ve beaten the last three teams we’ve beaten, and their size really concerns me, so we’re in for a challenge,” Franco said of the Falcons.

Connellsville is fresh off a 30-point win over Kiski Area, a team Altoona only beat by 18 the week before. The Falcons run a Wing-T offense, heavy on the run – they’ve only put the ball in the air 61 times all season but have four backs with more than 200 yards rushing and two others with at least 167, led by Dylan Knopsnider with 283 yards. The Falcons have three linemen on the roster who tip the scales at at least 290 pounds.

“They have a really good inside running game, but the ironic thing is their best running play is probably an outside jet sweep. That’s probably because everyone packs it inside because of their size,” Franco said.

Connellsville also is playing for a chance to get into the playoffs as the Class AAAA wild card.

“This is my fourth year at Connellsville. When I got there, the team won two games in five years. At Connellsville, we live on a really thin edge, or we balance the tightrope,” Falcons coach Dave McDonald said. “Friday night is an important step for our program. Is it a be-all, end-all? No. But we sure would like to play well against a quality opponent. It’s part of the process of what we’re trying to do in building a program.”

McDonald, who thinks his team is coming off its best game of the season, drew a comparison with the growth of his program and what is happening at Altoona now.

“They are just really solid on offense, defense and special teams. They don’t do a lot to hurt themselves,” McDonald said of Altoona. “They are one of the best-coached teams we play. They aren’t blowing people out. They are very consistent. They just kind of wear you out with long drives. We have to do the same thing.”

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