Now-departed Armstrong Central surprised 'em all
The man on the other end of the phone has belonged to more than a few teams in his lifetime.
Bo Durkac was a multisport athlete in high school. He played baseball at North Carolina and Virginia Tech. He went from one minor league team to another for seven years. He spent seven years as an assistant coach at UNC Charlotte and now is the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at Illinois State.
But without hesitation, Durkac described the 1990 Armstrong Central football team, a first-year program and product of the short-lived merger of Kittanning and Ford City high schools, as one of the most special squads he has come across. Twenty years have passed since that team posted a stunning 8-2 regular-season record and made the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs, yet he is no less in awe of the feat.
"To this day, it was probably the greatest team I've ever been a part of, in terms of where we came from, how we came about and then what we accomplished on the field," said Durkac, the starting quarterback. "Just because nobody gave us a shot. It was like putting the Hatfields and McCoys together and asking them to form a village."
Talk of school district consolidation is common now, including in Armstrong County. And while the consequences are something of a mystery, they aren't completely unknown to those in Ford City and Kittanning.
When the schools merged during the summer of 1990, residents wondered whether students would quarrel. Many parents were against the decision, according to Sam Panchik, Armstrong Central's defensive coordinator. And that mentality sometimes was passed on to the kids.
The Armstrong School District selected Harry Beckwith, Ford City's coach at the time and a former Kittanning coach, to lead the Armstrong Central Cougars. According to contemporary reports, Beckwith considered the scenario among the greatest challenges of his life. But Beckwith, more than any other local candidate, understood both schools' boys and knew how to bring them together.
Competition for starting spots was fierce. Training camp brought session after session of hitting, fullback Marckeis Allensworth recalled. There were fights between Kittanning and Ford City players, but the scraps were a way to get the boys acquainted and rarely deterred them from showing up the next day.
"We all wanted to play," Allensworth said. "That was the name of the game. We wanted to play ball."
How well Armstrong Central would play was a matter of much speculation. Durkac recalled an article about first-year programs that appeared in the Valley News Dispatch. That story, which was published the day of the season opener, centered around the miserable starts that new teams usually endure.
"Put it this way: The odds were stacked against us on paper," Durkac said.
Armstrong Central went to Indiana, a Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference co-champion in 1989, and won, 30-0.
Armstrong Central beat Plum, 34-28, in Week 2 and then lost a Week 3 nonconference contest, 16-7, to Highlands in a game that took two days to complete because of a lightning delay. The Cougars went on to defeat Quad South Conference opponents Latrobe, Tri-Valley, Laurel Highlands, Norwin and Hempfield during the middle part of the season. Their lone conference loss came to Connellsville, 23-6, in Week 7.
In Week 9, with a playoff spot on the line, Armstrong Central crushed Penn-Trafford, 60-21, in front of more than 4,000 fans at Kittanning. Penn-Trafford had allowed 70 points all season before the loss.
The Cougars averaged 36.2 points during the regular season. The backfield trio of Allensworth, Jon Yackmack and Chris Skultety combined for 2, 356 yards and 39 touchdowns.
"We knew we had one of the best offenses, even at the Quad A level," Allensworth said. "We had it all -- the total package."
Armstrong Central traveled to Kiski Area for its first-round playoff game. The Cavaliers were equally explosive on offense and stronger on defense. They prevailed, 29-13, by gaining 370 yards and holding Armstrong Central to 37.
A Valley News Dispatch article about the game closed with this quote from Durkac: "I'll look back 20 to 30 years from now and say it was an honor and privilege to play for the first Armstrong Central Cougar team. With the coaches we have, I believe the team will only get better."
Armstrong Central struggled in its next two seasons. Then, the Cougars were gone: Ford City and Kittanning, deconsolidated after the 1991 school board elections, restarted their programs in 1993.
Allensworth, who still lives in Kittanning and owns a roofing business, said he hopes Armstrong Central might one day return. His reasons center around opportunities for his kids instead of nostalgia, but he wouldn't object to a comeback.
"(Consolidation) made one (heck) of a ball team," he said. "And it made for one (heck) of a crowd."