Eisenhower's story is similar to Warren's.
Oh, so similar.
Same team as last year, much better results.
Times Observer photo
Eisenhower running back John Pascuzzi tries to clear mud from his facemask during the Knights’ 24-19 loss at Lakeview last year in Stoneboro. Pascuzzi finished with nearly 100 yards rushing in that contest, but Lakeview’s Blake Reddick carried 43 times for 155 yards and a game-winning touchdown with 36 seconds left. The teams meet again at 7 p.m. Friday at War Memorial Field in Warren in the District 10 Class A playoff quarterfinals.
The Knights also hope to win their first playoff football game since 2002 when they host Lakeview in the District 10 Class A quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Friday at War Memorial Field in Warren.
But the Knights have probably risen from greater depths than the Dragons, with Jim Penley 42-49 over nine seasons as head coach. Eisenhower has made the District 10 playoffs twice in those 10 years, losing 14-7 to Mercer in 2007, and 53-0 to Farrell in 2009.
This year's Knights are the same team that went 0-10 two seasons ago - when Penley was almost replaced after the season.
"I will say this about what has changed, 'nothing,'" said Penley. "I have not changed one thing about how I have done things. The guys bought into it before, during the 0-10 (season), and after. That is why they all have done this. Our philosophy of doing things in my program has not changed since 2004. We maintained our core family model, and that is why we all survived that season and off-season, and now have come out better because of it."
The Knights (8-2) have won three games in a row, and eight of nine, including their first Region 2 championship since moving west from the old Allegheny Mountain League in 2004 - Penley's first year as head coach.
The roster at the beginning of the season boasted 13 seniors and 11 juniors. Behind the numbers, many of those juniors and seniors were getting valuable playing time or even starting two seasons ago - going from 0-10 in 2010 to 3-7 last year.
Eisenhower quarterback Aaron Lundmark said coaches kept telling them they were close. Then the players believed they were close.
"We had a lot of doubt, but we didn't want to keep being 0-10," said Lundmark. "A couple of years ago, I guess it was like, 'Why can't we be like one of those teams?' We put a lot of work in... That has definitely made us a lot closer."
"We felt after the season last year we could be pretty good," said Penley. "Region champ was only something we could have really hoped. We made it a goal. The fact is we did not go 0-10 because we had bad kids or did anything wrong as a team; we did because we started 12 boys who were 14 or 15 (years old) going against 17- and-18-year-old men. Those kids are now 17 or 18 and young men who have been tested and have been through a lot. I knew this group of guys would be successful. Anyone who thinks you can judge a player when they are 15 is an idiot.
"This group is one of my favorites," said Penley. "They were one of my favorites when we went 0-10. That was one of my most enjoyable seasons because I was so proud of how they practiced each day. Those were difficult situations to play in, and yet they always came to practice with a great attitude. We were so close, and always had each others' backs. Win or lose, we had a great year, and that is all I can ask of my guys."
After years of hard work, bring on the accolades.
In addition to being region champions, making the playoffs, and beating Youngsville in the Backyard Brawl - which, no fooling, is pretty darn important - the Knights are getting recognized in ways they never would have imagined two or three seasons ago.
"I didn't know how we were going to be two years ago, but we've evolved," said senior tailback John Pascuzzi, whose 3,145 career rushing yards is a school record. "The rushing record means a lot to me and the team records mean a lot to us."
Pascuzzi's 154 rushing yards last week in a non-region game at Cameron County helped him surpass Steve Witte's school record of 3,115 career yards. Witte went on to star at Division II Clarion University, and he is a Warren County Sports Hall of Famer and Clarion University Hall of Famer. Now, Pascuzzi is just 57 yards from breaking Witte's single-season rushing record. Pascuzzi has 195 carries for 1,530 yards (or a 7.85-yards-per-carry average). He's had three games of over 250 yards, including a school-record 41 carries for 339 yards in a 38-16 region win over Cochranton. He scored four of his 16 touchdowns this season in a 67-26 win over Youngsville that clinched the region title.
"Pascuzzi could be having even a better year if we were not so complete as a team," said Penley. "When Steve ran for all that, there was not a 500-yard rusher like Alex Johnson with him, let alone a 1,000-yard passer like Aaron (Lundmark) throwing to Nate (O'Brien). It was all Steve; not to take anything away from him or his team because I was in junior high idolizing them.
"What makes Johnny's records special is he did it in the team concept," said Penley. "If it had been about Johnny, he would be over 2,000 yards right now. But it is about the team, the family. That is why we are averaging over 400 yards a game and nearly 40 points a game, which will blow away the school records. The reason I am not surprised is that these guys are all team players. They just want to win."
The Knights clinched the region title against Youngsville with a single-game school-record 615 total yards.
The line takes a lot of pride in the school records, said tight end Jake Johnson.
"Communication this year has just been awesome," he said. "We've been hearing for a long time about teams that are always bigger and stronger. Obviously (offensively and defensively), we still have the size advantage, but I truly believe we're one of the smartest lines in maybe all of Pennsylvania. Johnny Pascuzzi is obviously a stud, but we take a lot of pride (in the records)."
O'Brien is a hundred yards or so from breaking Mark Witte's school record for receiving yards in a season, and could become the first player to reach 1,000 career receiving yards.
"We've come a long way from the 0-10 season," said Pascuzzi. "We've put a lot of work in the last two years. Some games (in 2010), it was really frustrating; we were close to winning and just wanted that win so bad. Most games, it was trying to get better and trying not to get too frustrated. Now, we can do a lot more things - passing-wise, for example - that we couldn't do before because we were so young."
They stuck together, scratched and clawed together, and became good together - with 44 rushing touchdowns. Johnson had nine, Robbie Wilston five, Lundmark four, and Trevor Spicer three. Lundmark had 13 touchdown passes and O'Brien 27 catches for 643 yards and nine TD's.
It's not all offense, as the Knights combined for 14 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries in allowing 19 points per game. Johnson had well over 100 total tackles.
Penley hopes this year is good enough "to start building something that I have been striving for for 10 years - a champion," he said.
It won't be easy, which is something Eisenhower is used to, and almost embraces.
"To beat Lakeview, we must stop the run," said Penley. "They are much larger than us up front, and we hope we can adjust to their size."
If you think Pascuzzi's numbers are eye-popping for this area, Lakeview (6-4) is led by junior running back Blake Reddick, who has 1,710 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns on 234 carries. Eleven ball carriers for Lakeview have combined for 2,602 yards on 399 carries, but it's mostly Reddick. Lakeview has only passed the ball 75 times, and Zach VanDusen has caught 13 of quarterback Zach Bigley's 21 completions for 242 yards and five touchdowns.
"They are awesome running the ball, and are a very physical and aggressive defense (especially senior linebacker Nate Kokoski)" said Penley. "I hope we can keep putting up the points, but it will come down to defense. And they play a very tough schedule. So we have to be ready for their intensity. We almost beat them last year; hopefully we can get the job done this year."
Lakeview, which was stomped by Region 1 champ West Middlesex, 41-6, and second-place Sharpsville, 42-0, before beating Region 2's Iroquois, 56-0. Eisenhower lost the season opener to Mercer, 33-7. Lakeview beat Mercer, 28-13, less than a month later.
"We are the underdog because the south region is king," said Penley. "Did anyone notice that the top two teams in Region 1 A beat two of the top teams in AA south? Only one north team has won a D-10 title in the last 14 years, and only a couple have even made it to the title game. We want to earn that respect, because football down there is on a different level. That is why we have always wanted to play those teams, and have scheduled the Sharpsvilles, Lakeviews and Mercers. Lakeview is real tough, and that is what is driving us right now. That and the fact that we don't want this to end. It has been fun and special. We know that everything we do this year will build for our season next year, which we feel could be just as good as this year."
The Knights learned how to win. Now the Knights want to win in the playoffs.
"We are very confident about ourselves," said Lundmark. "Up here, we're looking to prove to the south teams we can play football, too."