The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Harold Raker

October 21, 2011

Harold Raker's column on high school football: The Owls nearly pulled it off

On a clear night, some of the fans watching tonight's Mount Carmel versus Shikellamy game might be able to see, at least if they close their eyes, the maroon and white Northumberland Pineknotters battling the blue and white Sunbury Owls.

It was on this weekend 50 years ago that those two fierce cross-river rivals laid it on the line against one another for the final game. They didn't know it at the time, but, after that Oct. 13, 1961, contest in Northumberland, the Pineknotters and Owls went their separate ways for the next three seasons, only to come together as one -- as the blue, maroon and white Shikellamy Braves in the fall of 1965.

Northumberland resident and retired Selinsgrove Area School District teacher Jerry Anderson, who played in the offensive line and at outside linebacker for the Pineknotters recently informed me of this anniversary of sorts.

The last game was certainly a memorable one, with the heavily favored Owls trailing 7-6 until late in the game when the visitors capped an 87-yard drive with a one-yard TD plunge by Todd Lewis and the winning PAT kick by quarterback Mike Strawser with about 30 seconds to play. Future Shikellamy head coach Steve Treon iced the game for Sunbury with an interception.

Northumberland scored in the second quarter on a short run by Lee Ciotti and PAT by Charley Lewis, a future Northumberland County Commissioner known as "Chap." Sunbury's other score, also in the second, was a run by Rick Balestrini.

According to the game story in the Oct. 14 edition of the Sunbury Daily Item (presumably written by the late Bill Toland, although without a by-line), the game was watched by about 3,500 fans.

"We went into the West Branch League that year and most of our away teams had no lights, so we played Saturday. But this game (with Sunbury) was a Friday night at our place," Anderson said.

He added, "We had a habit that year of losing all of our home games but one (the Sunbury game), but won all the away games. He recalled that perennial West Branch contender Bald Eagle-Nittany had won about 36 games in a row when the Pineknotters beat them at their place, then BE-N went onto win more than 50 in a row after that loss.

He said that the Pineknotters finished 6-4 that year, 6-3 in the league, and believes the Owls were 8-2. He recalled that they beat both Mount Carmel and Hazleton that season.

Anderson remembered that one of the key plays on Sunbury's winning drive was a double-reverse which he expected and had warned his teammates about.

Anderson said the teams had people take films of games and that's how they scouted their opponents. He had seen the Owls' reverse play on film and he yelled to his defensive teammates that the Owls had not used it yet, and they should expect it on that drive.

He was right, but it still worked, to keep the Owls headed toward the goal line.

The other play he knew about was a sort of jump-pass by Strawser -- a lob to a receiver crossing just behind the line. "They had tall ends. (Stan) Oshetski) would take two steps out and turn and run behind the line and Mike Strawser would jump up and throw a lob pass high to him. I had to watch for that the whole game, but I was torn between trying to go out to stop the double-reverse or stay home and hoping they wouldn't throw the jump pass. It turned out our linebacker got sucked in (on the double-reverse) and that was the game.

"But it was really fun to play," Anderson said.

He was able to make one big defensive play as a result of the scouting. He said his team had played zone defense when it got routed by Montoursville, then went to a man-to-man after that. He had seen on film that Strawser never looked at the receiver he planned to target. "My man was Rick Balestrini. He would be blocking me and Strawser was looking to the other side of the field. I would pretend that I didn't expect him to catch the ball, then Strawser turned and threw it straight to Balestrini. I got there and knocked it down," he said.

The Owls were coached that year by future successful Shikellamy coach Dick Purnell, in his first season as a head coach, and the Pineknotters were led by Rich Young. Both coaches had been Little All-America players at Susquehanna University.

Anderson, who graduated from Northumberland in 1962, said he has long wanted to get the players of the two teams together, but has so far been unsuccessful. He said his 50th class reunion will be held next year and it would be nice to do it at that time.

Among the other players whom Anderson recalled being a part of that exciting game, in which Northumberland was trying to get its first win over Sunbury since 1956, were Pineknotters Woody Stetler, Bud Mertz, the late Ben Hummel, Bob Long, Phil Hallden, John Cechman, Tom Strouse and the late Bill Dunkelberger; and, for the Owls, Fred Kelly.

Efforts to reach some of the players and coaches for this column were unsuccessful, in part because of telephone problems at The Daily Item.

I hope that some of the players from that game, if they are in the stands at Shikellamy tonight, will take a moment to remember that memorable night on the other side of the Susquehanna River.

TIGHT BATTLE: In a preview of the Warrior Run-Bloomsburg game in Thursday's Game Night, I wrote that the winner of tonight's game would win the Heartland Athletic Conference Division III championship. However, Hughesville is 2-1 and Muncy is 1-1 (losing a game with Bloomsburg because of flooding) each with two HAC-III games left. The Spartans will be in Muncy on the final night, and that's when the title will be decided.

n Assistant sports editor Harold Raker covers high school football. Email comments to

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