There’s something about high school football that can make even the sleepiest of small, rural towns come alive.
“When those lights come on in the middle of town on a Friday night,” Homer-Center assistant coach Joe Iezzi said, pausing to find the right words, “it kind of seems like nothing else happens. Everything shuts down for it. It’s such a great environment, and we just try to go out and put on a show for the fans.”
Maybe it’s a little hard to imagine the magic of Friday Night Lights right now when we’re in the middle of the dog days of summer. However, as Heritage Conference teams converged at Windber Stadium on Friday for media day, there was definitely a buzz of excitement and an air of nostalgia for the atmosphere football brings to the communities across the area.
Sure, there was business to tend to as the first week of games looms in the near future with the season kicking off Aug. 26.
How will River Valley fill the hole in their run game left by 2021’s leading rusher and designated A-Train, Angelo Bartolini? By spreading out their offense to get more trains leaving the station, including returning running back Ethan Kishlock, and maybe even adding some planes from new starting quarterback Luke Woodring.
What is Cambria Heights’ game plan to defend its Heritage Championship title? Stick to the system that’s brought the Highlanders success for more than 25 years with strong offensive and defensive lines and a core set of returners, including two-way starter Tanner Trybus and quarterback Ty Stockley.
How is Homer-Center going to follow up a season that saw the Wildcats reach the District 6 semifinals? By focusing on the experience they’ve gained from that run and their strengths in teamwork and chemistry, while also bringing back the hard-nosed, shut-down defense that carried them throughout last season.
Penns Manor, Northern Cambria and United (now United Valley after forming a cooperative agreement with Blacklick Valley) all struggled with rebuilding years, winning just six games between the three teams. This season, there’s more drive to win, more depth on their rosters, and more experience under the belts of upperclassmen who got playing time as underclassmen — even if they weren’t’ exactly prepared for it.
Marion Center and West Shamokin had to find replacements for standout quarterbacks Ty Ryen and Bo Swartz after losing the pair to graduation, and Purchase Line brings in a roster with just four seniors.
Plus, Portage enters the Heritage Conference as a dark horse this year to stir things up.
Aside from all the talk about strategy and conditioning, game plans and systems, there was an overall eagerness for the feeling that comes with the start of a new season.
“I’ve been at it for 39 years, and, to me, it’s just like Christmas,” United Valley head coach Kevin Marabito said. “It’s exciting and the community gets behind it.”
Football season really can feel a bit like Christmas.
Instead of towns being decorated with lighted trees and holly, senior portraits are hung on lamp posts, words of encouragement are painted on shop windows and signs are stuck proudly in yards. Instead of carols, there’s the sweet sound of cowbells.
It’s a community experience that doesn’t start or end on the field itself, even though the gridiron is where the atmosphere feels the most alive.
“Playing so many games on that field from pee-wee to high school, you’d think the chills would finally go away after awhile,” Justin Marshall, a senior running back for Penns Manor, said, “but, every Friday night, the band makes a tunnel and you step out on that field and you hear the fans cheering for your team to go out there and play your best, and you start shaking in your boots a little bit. That doesn’t go away, but it’s good nerves.”
What makes the experience better is how it differs from town to town and from team to team, with little details and traditions that make the community special in their own unique ways.
Homer-Center has Wildcat Alley, the paw-print sidewalk that takes the Wildcats from their makeshift locker room to the field every home game, while United Valley has the ongoing slogan of ‘Restore the Roar’ and its own paw-printed walk to the field.
“We tell kids that there’s no better place than Memorial Field,” Iezzi said. “It’s got its own little atmosphere. It’s very rare to have a football field sitting in the middle of a town like that. There’s a lot of tradition there. … It’s just a great place to be. The community is tremendous. They support this program like no other. They travel like no other. That walk down Wildcat Alley is special, and we preach that, and we teach that, to the kids that this is something you’re going to remember.”
There’s also the fireworks in the end zone for River Valley scores, a weekly parade of music and cheers that start every Northern Cambria game, and a dragon watching over Purchase Line home matchups.
Even if you’re not a football fan, there’s always an allure to the atmosphere — like snow cones while watching the Panthers, kettle corn for the Wildcats and cotton candy with the Colts.
It’s a fanfare of sorts with football at its center that can even leave coaches feeling speechless.
“Walking out the tunnel and seeing all those fans, it’s special,” River Valley head coach Jesse Houser said. “It’s a special time of year, that’s for sure. You can’t put words to it.”
For the Highlanders and Colts, the start of the season holds a little more weight.
The long-time rivals face each other in Week 1 for the Coal Bowl, an annual matchup between the two towns rooted in the coal industry.
“I can remember back in the day when it was really big and you’re getting five or six thousand people there,” Cambria Heights assistant coach Drew Thomas, who’s in his 30th year with the program, said. “The kids are excited, but I don’t think they realize just how big that rivalry was at one time because it wasn’t played for a while. I played in it, I coached in it and it’s like no other. I can’t imagine anything else like it. There’s people that go to one game a year, and it’s the Coal Bowl. … With us joining the Heritage Conference, we’re hoping to get it back to where it used to be, because it’s something special.”
“It’s great for the communities that we play each other,” Northern Cambria head coach Sam Shutty said. “They’re a great team and they’re a tough team, and it’s not fun to prepare for them. It’s really not. But when you step back and think about what football does for communities, it’s hard to put it into words. It’s such a great rivalry to bring these communities together. Last year traffic was backed up in Patton for like three miles. Just to get that many people out to support these teams is a win. … That’s what football is about, and I just love that these communities are back together and competing in this format to keep that spirit alive.”
It’s tradition like these that have made Friday Night Lights so special, and it’s a special time and a special feeling that so many hold onto.
“I’ve always said that if coaching ever gets to the point where I don’t get excited on Friday nights or I don’t like going to practice — a lot of times I don’t like the weight lifting and stuff, but those are things you have to do — I’ll retire,” Marabito said. “But I still get excited. I don’t sleep at night. I still enjoy it. You would think at my age it wouldn’t be fun, but I still enjoy it. These guys keep me young.”
“Just Friday Night Lights,” River Valley senior Gage Pierce said. “What else is there to say?”