PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Even as the losses piled up last year, there was a different feeling around the Punxsutawney football team.
(Photo by Maisie Eberhart)
The final record was disappointing — 2-7 — but there was still a lot of confidence spilling over into this campaign.
Goals were set high. There was a strong belief within the locker room walls that a turnaround was eminent.
A 2-0 start — the first since 2010 — has only confirmed that notion.
“I’m very proud of these guys,” said Punxsutawney coach Alan Nichol. “They’ve worked very hard and they’ve overcome some adversity the last couple of years. They were finding out what it takes to win and sticking together through that. It takes a lot of character to do that. Very happy with that.”
It has been a long time coming for the Chucks, who before this year had won just five games over the last four seasons and notched only one winning record (6-5 in 2014) since 2011.
Last year, Punxsutawney was in several games that it eventually lost.
That has already changed with a 37-16 win over Kane last week following a 56-0 rout of Bradford in the opener.
Senior quarterback Seth Moore passed for 136 yards and two touchdowns, both to junior Noah Weaver. And Zeke Bennett came up big again on the ground with 206 yards and three scores.
“Zeke has picked up right where he left off last season,” Nichol said.
Bennett now has rushed for 388 yards and seven touchdowns in two games.
Punxsutawney and Kane were neck-and-neck most of the night with the Chucks clinging to a 22-16 lead early in the second half before pulling away with Bennett TD runs of 24 and 46 in the fourth quarter.
That was a good sign for a team that may not have been able to hold on for a win like that just a year ago.
“Kane and their coach up there do a great job and we knew, going up there, we were going to have to match their intensity,” Nichol said. “The final score didn’t really indicate how close the game really was.
“I learned a long time ago from a very good, old football guy that good teams make their own breaks, and we got some breaks in that football game,” Nichol added. “We hung in there and did a good job doing our assignments and tackling and those kind of things. That was a big win for us, to be able to go up there and compete with a very, very good Kane team.”
Another key in the 2-0 start has been the play of the offensive line.
Punxsutawney is very deep up front with as many as eight players rotating.
Seniors Quinton Voelkel at center, Griffin Barrick at guard and Gabriel Rowan at tackle are the anchors. Junior guards Matthew Grusky, Ryan Kanouff and Harry Yoder, also at guard, and Nick Wisnesky — a tight end last year converted to tackle — have been instrumental as well.
Freshman Breydon Trithard has also played well.
“We have eight or nine guys who are a pretty solid,” Nichol said. “There’s some talent even down to the 10th guy. That makes practice a lot more challenging, so they’re more prepared for games.”
Junior tight end/linebacker Mason Nesbitt has also contributed in a variety of ways – he leads the Chucks in tackles – and junior Landon Martz has provided a 1-2 punch in the backfield with Bennett.
“They’ve worked very hard to become good athletes, good football players,” Nichol said. “That’s what you need if you’re going to turn yourself into a championship program. We have a whole group of guys like that and then we have guys who made position changes like moving Noah Weaver, who’s a fantastic athlete, to receiver and be a threat out there.”
Even special teams has shined in the 2-0 start.
Kicker Peyton Hetrick is perfect on his extra points and also booted a 36-yard field goal just before the half against Kane last week.
“He’s given us another weapon,” Nichol said.
The Chucks will need every one they have in their arsenal when they host Redbank Valley on Friday.
It’s another big test for a team that is intent of passing every one this season.
“We’re understanding what it takes and what it’s going to take to compete at a championship level week after week,” Nichol said. “You have to prepare physically, but also mentally. And mentally, it’s different whenever you are playing 48 straight minutes of constant, any play can turn the game, football.”