Avella still trying to end 37-year playoff drought
As early as tonight, Avella High School’s football team can snap a 37-year WPIAL playoffs drought.
The last time the Eagles’ season extended longer than the regular season was in 1976, when they made their second consecutive appearance in the WPIAL Class A championship game, a 42-27 loss to Western Beaver.
Avella enters its Tri-County South Conference game against Beth-Center tonight (7 p.m.) with a 4-2 record, good enough for fourth place. Mapletown sits in fifth place with a 3-3 record. The Eagles get into the playoffs with either a win over undefeated Beth-Center (7-0, 7-0) or a Mapletown loss at Jefferson-Morgan (2-4, 3-4). If neither of those scenarios play out, Avella can get into the playoffs with a victory over Bentworth (1-5, 1-6) in the regular-season finale next week.
“It’s been our goal all season,” said Avella head coach Ryan Cecchini. “We talked about it since camp. We were fighting for it last year and fell short. All you heard was 36-year drought. Now, you hear 37-year drought. We want to tear down that wall.”
This might be Avella’s final opportunity. The Eagles lose nine seniors – about half the roster – and no one is sure the school will have enough players to field a team next season. But no one really wanted to dwell on what might come in the future, when the present had so much promise.
“Just getting there matters,” said Cecchini. “If we make the playoffs, it will be a successful season.”
Fortunately, Cecchini can lean on a wealth of historians to help the Eagles understand the significance of breaking the streak, including assistant coaches Dom Frank, who was a tackle on that 1976 team, and Dan Cecchini, who was an assistant to head coach Jim Morris.
“I always tell the kids that there is no tomorrow,” said Frank, who has coached in Avella’s system for a dozen years. “I tell them you have this moment, and you can’t get it back. I try to teach them that, but it’s up to them.”
The 1976 team had a small roster and a lot of talent. Tailback Jimmy Floyd was a 1,000-yard rusher and the spark for the offense. Quarterback Eugene Tomassi ran the Wing-T offense Morris used and Frank was a two-way tackle on a tough-as-nails line.
“They were tough,” said Jack Conn, who was an assistant coach on that team. “They were so much tougher than you’re used to seeing now. I don’t want to demean any other athletes, but they played hard. There were no trainers. We did our own taping. If you got hurt, you put a little tape on it and went back out.”
The community pitched in too, building a seven-man blocking sled when the old one broke.
“You walked to practice, or found a ride,” said Frank. “No benches. No locker rooms. When practice was over, you walked home or tried to find a ride. We grew up tough.”
One problem Avella has encountered over the decades is being switched into different conferences. The WPIAL placed them in the Tri-County South three years ago after playing in the powerful Black Hills Conference.
“I think Avella is finally back where they should be,” said Morris. “We kept getting switched and that hurt us in the long run. If we had stayed (in the Tri-County South), I felt we would always be competitive.”
The 1975 Avella team made it to the Class A finals and lost to Monaca, 20-19. The 1976 team played Western Beaver in the finals at Mt. Lebanon on its new playing surface called Astroturf.
“These kids have a great opportunity,” Conn said. “It may be the last team Avella puts on the field, so you have to take advantage of this opportunity. You live it to the fullest and enjoy being in the playoffs.”
Maybe no local team has a more difficult path to the playoffs in the final two weeks than Chartiers-Houston. The Bucs (5-2, 6-2) can clinch by winning out, but that means stopping Monessen tonight (7 p.m.) and Fort Cherry in Week 9, two of the three teams tied for first place in the Black Hills with 6-1 records. Or the Bucs (5-2, 6-2) can hope that Brentwood (4-3, 4-4) stumbles against Bishop Canevin (1-6, 2-6) tonight and California (3-4, 3-4) next week. Brentwood would own the tiebreaker over C-H by virtue of a 47-21 win in Week 5.