A strong lineman from Altoona committed to Ohio University as a high school junior.
By the time Neal Huynh reached the Athens, Ohio, campus, two other former Mountain Lions were at his side.
Huynh, a 6-foot-3, 301-pound nose guard, is part of the Bobcats Altoona 3, a group of fifth-year seniors determined to help Ohio fulfill vast expectations this fall.
For Huynh, and linebacker Alphonso Lewis and wide receiver Tyler Futrell, the season couldnt start at a better place. The Bobcats face Penn State today at Beaver Stadium.
Its going to be a real exciting game, Huynh said. Were going to have a lot of friends and family there. I have been to a handful of Penn State games throughout my life. Its going to be really fun to be out there and play football. Lewis put it succinctly.
We have been waiting for this game for five years, he said.
Lewis said most football players from Altoona, a 45-minute drive from Beaver Stadium, grow up hoping to play for Penn State or Pitt. Neither program seriously pursued the trio yet they received steady interest from other schools, including Ohio, a rising Mid-American Conference power.
Playing sports together helped the trio develop a bond that aided life outside Altoona. Their senior football season ended with the Mountain Lions finishing 8-3 in 2007. The following the spring they helped Altoona capture the PIAA Class AAA track and field title. Huynh threw the javelin. Lewis and Futrell ran legs on state-caliber 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams.
Signs honoring the 2008 track team greet visitors at various access points into Altoona.
We had some great athletes on our teams, Lewis said. Winning that track title was huge, and we see that sign every time we come home. We take great pride in that.
Ohio started heavily recruiting Lewis and Futrell during their senior seasons. Coach Frank Solich and then-assistant Pete Germano received an assist from Huynh, who frequently discussed the Bobcats with his friends.
Futrell was the last member of the trio to orally commit to Ohio. After receiving lukewarm recruiting interest from Division I schools as a senior, Futrell attended a scouting combine in Pittsburgh.
Their coaches were there, and I ran some good times and caught some passes, so they offered me a scholarship, he said.
Solich said recruiting three players from the same part of Pennsylvania fit into the programs philosophy. Five other Mid-American Conference conference schools play in Ohio, forcing the Bobcats to scour surrounding states for talent.
All three of those guys had interest in us and it appeared to me on film they had a legitimate shot to play major college football, Solich said. I wasnt uncomfortable with taking three players from the same school in one class. So far, it has worked out extremely well for us and all three players continue to develop.
All three are listed as projected starters for todays game. Lewis and Huynh both started seven games last season, collecting 64 and 32 tackles, respectively. Futrell, who began his college career as a cornerback, caught six passes for 90 yards. Futrell is among the first players to get a crack at replacing wide receiver LaVon Brazill, the Indianapolis Colts sixth-round draft pick.
Ohio has experienced a major transformation since the Altoona 3 arrived. The Bobcats went 4-8 in 2008, a season the trio watched from the sidelines as redshirts. Ohio has recovered to win at least eight games to become bowl eligible in each of the past three seasons. The program captured its first-ever bowl win last season, defeating Utah State 24-23 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Huynh and Lewis both played big parts in the victory.
When we came in, the program was just building, Huynh said. They werent expecting to win. Now we expect to win every game. It has come a long way in the last few years. Players have developed and the coaching staff is a great staff.
Ohios central Pennsylvania connections extend beyond the Altoona 3.
Starting right tackle Ryan McGrath, a redshirt junior, attended Hollidaysburg.
The 6-foot-6, 304-pound McGrath appeared in 13 games last season and registered 21 pancake blocks.
The Bobcats coaching staff also includes a District 6 presence. Solich was born in Johnstown and he lived in Cambria County until moving to Cleveland in sixth grade. Solichs father, Frank Solich Sr., was a coal miner who often took his son to Fisher-mans Paradise outside Bellefonte.
His family has scattered, but Solich said one relative living in Cambria County contacted him about tickets for todays game.
This is a business, said Solich, whose Nebraska team lost to Penn State 40-7 in Beaver Stadium in 2002. You travel to a lot of places to play games. I cant make too big of a deal of it. But I have fond memories of my time in Pennsylvania.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy