Alumni from Blairsville, Homer-Center don pads once more
BLAIRSVILLE - Just moments after a thrilling finish in last year's inaugural alumni football contest between Homer-Center and Blairsville in Homer City, the rematch was already in the works.
"Right after the game, the guy from Alumni Football USA said 'Next year, down in Blairsville - rematch,' and both teams agreed," said Homer-Center's Nick Arone (1997 graduate), who has taken over as the organizer for this year's team. "We thought it was fair since they came up to our field, they should get to play on their field."
The rematch will take place at 7:30 tonight at Memorial Field in Blairsville. The game is set up by Alumni Football USA, an organization that helps put together alumni games all around the country. Alumni Football USA provides the equipment and takes a portion of revenues from the game.
With the way last year's game ended, it was no wonder everyone was so anxious for a rematch after Homer-Center's 16-12 victory. After not kicking for 20 years, Homer's Jason Buggey nailed a huge field goal with a few minutes to play that forced the Bobcats to drive the length of the field for a chance at a win. They almost pulled it off, but 2008 H-C alum Aaron Stultz came away with an interception in the end zone to seal the game for his team.
Since the schools had never participated with Alumni Football USA before, last year's game was sort of a mystery going in, especially since it featured players of varying ages - some who had just graduated from high school and others who were in their 40s and hadn't played in more than two decades.
"Last year was great, everything went well," said Blairsville's John Steigert (1997), who is back as his team's organizer for a second year. "We had a competitive game, which of course we ended up on the short end, but to keep everyone interested and coming back, a close game makes a difference. If it had been a blowout, people may not have been interested."
The team organizers said they are seeing a lot of returning players from last year, along with some new guys. Numbers are down slightly, but each team is still planning to have fairly deep rosters - Homer-Center with about 36 and Blairsville with about 28.
Some players didn't want to take a second chance at being injured, but others had no hesitation in coming back, such as Homer-Center's Mike Arone (1993), even though he is one of the older players who will take the field.
"It didn't take any persuasion, I jumped right into it," he said. "The great thing about last year was the unexpected. You haven't played in 18 years or whatever. That element is gone because you know what to expect, but I jumped on the opportunity, and I'm getting excited for it."
Then you have players like Adam Highberger (2006), the former Blairsville star quarterback who watched last year's game and wished he had signed up.
"Once I saw everyone there and playing again, I immediately regretted not playing," said Highberger, who played basketball at Penn State. "It's really great to see everyone running around, putting the pads on and hitting. You never thought you would get the chance to play again."
With Blairsville playing at home and looking to avoid a second loss in the series, the thirst for revenge could be a factor in tonight's game, although the Bobcats have downplayed that aspect.
Mike Arone said he expects Blairsville to come out focused on getting revenge for last year's game, and he welcomes the challenge. He's also aware of how sweet it would be to sweep the series from their longtime rivals.
"That's bragging rights for a long time," he said. "That would be great, and that's what we're looking to do. I hope we can pull it out again, and I hope it's as close as it was last year."
However, the revenge factor is just one of a few storylines heading into tonight's game that will feature the renewal of a coaching rivalry, the birth of a friendly quarterbacking rivalry, and a local politician returning to the gridiron.
Taking a prominent role in this year's contest are two of the finest head coaches in the history of Indiana County football in current Blairsville High School coach Ab Dettorre and former Homer-Center High School coach Rick Foust. Both will be on the sidelines for tonight's game and have been guiding their teams in practices leading up to the event.
"Last year, there was no coach, and it worked out well, but the practices were hard to run because everyone had an idea," Nick Arone said. "Rick's a great coach, and just having him around there running practice has helped us, and the guys really enjoy it. It takes us back. He hasn't changed. He's excited about the game, and he's getting us ready."
Many of the Wildcats played for Foust during their high school days. Some, like quarterback Garrett Sisak (2009), are getting their first chance to play under the former coach but know him well because of his longtime service as the high school principal until he retired just a few years ago.
"Playing for him is different - he's joking around and having fun with the guys," Sisak said. "Truthfully, I think he was more strict as a principal. But maybe that's because this isn't as intense as a regular high school game would be, although he's still demanding and expects everyone to listen."
Steigert said the Blairsville team has also benefitted from Dettorre's presence, especially since a lot of the players on the team are still coaches themselves. With Dettorre leading the way, those guys can concentrate on practicing the plays rather than teaching them to the other players.
"He's been very important because he's taken over the defense and running the defensive calls," said nose tackle Jess Houser (1995). "He knows everything, and he knows Homer and the plays they call. He and Coach Foust - it's good to see those two going at it one more time."
This year, the Bobcats plan on running something closer to the current offense at Blairsville, and Steigert said they could look to pass up to 70 percent of the time. That prospect is exciting to Highberger. He put up record-breaking numbers under Dettorre and offensive coordinator Rick Artley, and he's hoping that familiarity with the offense will help.
"Not a whole lot has changed since I've been there, so that's one advantage I have," Highberger said. "(Dettorre) hasn't changed one bit. He's still enthusiastic about the game and still has a passion for the game. Both he and Coach Artley care a lot about Blairsville and the kids of Blairsville, and it's just refreshing to be around."
Highberger is also excited to face off against Sisak for the first time on the football field. The two never played against each other in high school, but they've become friends in the last few years and compete against each other in a lot of sports, mostly basketball and golf.
The quarterback matchup will be an interesting contrast in styles as Highberger is more of a drop-back passer, and Sisak is more of a running threat. "There's been some smack talk between us over the years as to who would beat who if we played, and now we can finally see," Highberger said. "We play a lot of sports and Garrett loses most of them. I'm sure if you would ask him the same question he would say he won. We're both washed-up athletes, but that competitiveness hasn't been lost in either of us."
"I'm excited to have the opportunity to play against him," Sisak said. "Both of us want to win the game, and the things we do, whether it's golf or whatever, we're always competitive with each other and trying to beat the other person. I'm sure this game will be no different."
The chance to put on the pads one more time was even enough to get a state legislator to take part in the game as Rep. Dave Reed (1996) will suit up for the Wildcats and play tight end and safety.
"The big thing is I have a 4-year-old son, and for most of us, our sons don't have an opportunity to watch us put on the pads and go out on the football field for a game," Reed said. "Mostly, I'd like to have my son have the opportunity to say that he was able to see me play once.
"I've made it to most of the practices, and it's been great to be out there in practice with a bunch of guys who represent a lot of different generations. It's a lot of guys I heard about growing up and some other guys who graduated high school after me who are spectacular athletes, and it's been really fascinating to watch them on the field."
Naturally, the Bobcats don't plan on taking it easy on the state representative.
"That'll be nice to hit somebody a little higher up than me," Houser said with a laugh. "It'll be interesting."
Several players thought that the Blairsville offense against the Homer-Center defense would be the key matchup since those appear to be the strengths of each team. Highberger will be throwing to four receivers who are 6-foot-2 or taller: Brian Brozeski, Jonathan Santoro, Ty Holderbaum and Steve Wilk. Andrew Iezzi and Matt Strope will man the backfield.
The Homer-Center defense will be led by John Zometsky and Mike Rayko, the team's two defensive MVPs from last year's game. Sisak is expected to be the main threat on offense along with running back Matt Finotti, a 1986 graduate who is the school's second all-time leading rusher.
Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased before the game at What's Brewing! coffeehouse in Blairsville and Fox's Pizza Den in Homer City. The Blairsville Football Boosters receive half of all funds from presale tickets. Tickets are also available at the gate.
Another local alumni football game is slated this weekend.
Derry Area will visit Hempfield Area 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets, which are available only at the gate, are $8 for adults; $6 for students; children age 8 and under are free.