By Shawn Wood
For The Daily Item
ELIZABETHVILLE — It is something that is inside every one of us, but only a few know how to harness its full potential.
It is symbolized when the football players put the four fingers into the air at the end of the third quarter or when a big hit comes and changes the game.
What it is, however, is not for sale.
You can’t buy it, you can’t borrow or trade for it as its price is a precious unknown.
It’s called heart.
And it’s a big part of the game of football from the quad-A schools to the single-A schools.
In the lower Susquehanna Valley and parts of the Anthracite Coal Region, the lights that illuminate the football fields of the Tri-Valley League shine just as bright on a Friday night as they do at Shikellamy or Selinsgrove.
The schools don’t have large rosters, some even have rosters as small as 25 kids. Yet, the field is still 100 yards long and the football just as good.
Part of the secret of the success of small-school football over the years is that is more of a run-option game where smash-mouth football becomes king.
The late Woody Hayes of Ohio State once said that football is you against the guy in the wrong colored jersey and who wants it more. If you knock you opponent down once, you better knock him down harder and harder each time after that to impose your will to win.
In this case, as it was last Friday when Millersburg and Halifax lined up at Halifax, some of the kids on each side of the ball played on the same midget team in Millersburg back in the day.
“The players know each other and what else makes the smaller schools unique is the fact that some of the kids are two or three-sport athletes which you don’t see at the bigger schools,” Simon Cameron, head coach of East Juniata said. “We have a lot of outstanding coaches in the league and they put in a lot of hard work and I think the fact that the kids play against each other in other sports raises the level of competition”
Any given Friday
One unusual part of small-school football is that on any given night, anyone can be beaten.
Last year in Week 7 of the TVL season, there where three games that went into overtime.
The league has also sent multiple teams to the post season each year with the way the districts are defined.
Matt Maniskas, now the head coach at Halifax, was an assistant coach at Newport in 2000.
“We were 8-2 that year and we didn’t make the playoffs,” he said. “The league has always been a tough one. Week in and week out, it doesn’t matter what the records are, each team gets their best each and every week.”
Jackson Fuhrer plays wide receiver and cornerback for Halifax and is all of 5-feet, 9 inches and weighs 165 pounds.
“A lot of people look at small schools as not having a lot of talent, but here in the TVL, we have a lot of fast kids and it’s hard to keep up with some of them and you have to run hard and do your best,” he said.
Juniata head coach Gary Klingensmith, 70, a former player at Penn State in the mid 1960s, has been coaching for 45 years.
“I personally think this is one of the toughest small-school conferences in the state,” he said. “Every week is a tough game and you have to be ready to play. I think it is a great league and the coaches have a great rapport with each other.”
Everybody knows everybody
Another part of small-school football is the local rivalries.
Neil Bodley, a senior at Juniata, plays running back, linebacker and was the quarterback last season.
“We came from the Mountain League the other year and I honestly thought that league was going to be tougher and I thought I had experienced a tougher league and we came back into the TVL last year and the league has some really tough competition and I would put it up there with any of the other small-leagues in the state,” he said. “Week in and week out, it’s a fight to the end of the game.”
“When you get the ball and come through the hole, there are guys popping you from all sides,” Ryan Heim, Pine Grove running back said. “They want to hit, you can tell they want to hit and they will not shy away from a tackle.”
With small schools, it is not uncommon for two-way players, but that also increases the risk for injuries.
“You find that kids have to play both ways and you have to watch your injuries,” Tri-Valley head coach Mike Ulicny said. “We have kids who have to know how to play multiple positions. The kids who do play really enjoy playing in the league.”
“Being in a small-school league also offers a lot of opportunity for younger kids to play since you don’t have the numbers, so you need freshmen, sophomores and juniors starting on both sides of the ball,” Millersburg head coach Brad Hatter said.
Nothing less than your best
The level of play that is presented on the field each week is at some of the highest levels of athleticism around.
“It is really tough as you have these small teams and we live in a small area and football is all that we have,” Cole Barnhardt of Williams Valley said. “We’re all friends with each other and when we’re on the football field, it’s a whole different story. You go from liking them and they can be your best friend to be your enemy and you have to leave it all out on the field, nothing less.”
Todd Rothermel has experienced the game from both the field and as a player at Line Mountain to the head coach for the Eagles and now the Newport Buffaloes.
“You have to bring your A-game every Friday night because everybody is so competitive,” he said. “Even if you don’t have the most talented team, your opponent is going to show up ready to play. Anywhere from the top to the bottom of the league, anybody can beat anybody, it depends on how motivated the teams are at the time.”
And nowhere for small-school football will you find a stronger heartbeat than in the TVL. Football is a game of will — your will against theirs — and to perform at a high athletic level week in and week out, it all begins with heart.