Gorman: Avella's Eagles are finally soaring
When the final second ticked off the scoreboard, it set off a Super Bowl-worthy celebration.
As the Avella Eagles stood at midfield, the school band played the alma mater, confetti flew all around them and fireworks filled the night sky.
“It's indescribable,” said Avella senior center Nate Connolly, tears running down his cheeks and smearing his eye black. “I'm so emotional right now. I was thinking about it the entire game, that this is the last time I'm going to be on this field. When the final buzzer sounded, it hit me: We're going to the playoffs.”
Thirty-seven years they waited for this moment. So take a second to let it sink in. Avella, long tortured as one of the worst football programs in Western Pennsylvania, is headed to the WPIAL playoffs.
The Eagles clinched it in convincing fashion, with a 55-14 victory over Bentworth on Friday night. The outcome was anticlimactic, considering Avella led 41-0 eight seconds into the second quarter.
Avella's accomplishment brought back pride to this rural Washington County community, tying together generations in the process.
Alex Paris played center on Avella's last playoff team in 1976. Now his son, Santino, is the starting quarterback on the team that snapped the streak.
“I would have never thought that it would be the last time for so long,” said Alex Paris, 54. “It's what you call a long dry spell.”
It was a drought that delved into unimaginable depths for one of the smallest schools in the WPIAL. Avella endured losing streaks of 24 and 27 games, once losing 51 of 52 in a six-year span. It was only two years ago that Avella lost to Clairton, 84-0.
That's when the Eagles finally reached their nadir.
“We started all of this out of that game,” Avella third-year coach Ryan Cecchini said. “We realized we have to work our butts off to get better. The other thing we realized about that game is if we can get through that game, we can get through anything together.”
Avella started eight freshmen and two sophomores in that Clairton game. They finished 0-9 in 2011, their fifth winless season since '04.
“Every game, it was a struggle to go out there and know that you have a great chance of losing,” Santino Paris said. “We had to fight every game to the end, just trying to get that first win.”
Cecchini convinced his players that they needed to make a year-round commitment to football. They started conditioning earlier and played seven-on-seven in the summer.
The Eagles are 12-6 in the two seasons since, helped in part by their move from the brutal Black Hills Conference to the Tri-County South.
The sudden success changed the culture of a community accustomed to losing. Friday night football became fun again in Avella.
“Every Friday, people actually show up, believing that we can win and wearing their blue and gold,” Avella senior wide receiver Zach Thompson said. “The pep rallies are crazy, cheerleaders and the whole town coming to watch the football games, soldout (crowds in the) seats.
What was amazing was watching Cecchini put his starters back into the game in the final two minutes so he could honor his seniors in a special way. The Eagles handed off first to Connolly, the 250-pound center, for a 5-yard gain. Then to 275-pound right guard Cory Blosser, who rambled for 12 yards. Finally, to Andrew Haskakis.
Followed by the best play of all: The victory formation.
“We've all been a part of it in some way, that 37 years of losing,” Cecchini said. “They have a lot of pride in what they're doing. They're proud of the fact that their school can look up to them now, that they're doing something the town can be proud of.
“It just makes it that much more meaningful. They're going to remember that game for the rest of their lives.”
It was a sweet moment with a sweeter reward. For Avella, the payoff is the playoffs.