Its a scary way to begin a conference schedule filled with intriguing possibilities.
After going 3-0 in non-conference games, State College opens Mid-Penn Commonwealth play tonight against Harrisburg at Memorial Field.
The game matches perhaps the leagues two most improved teams.
The Little Lions, who started 0-3 and went 8-5 last year, are listed as a team to watch in the Pennsylvania Football News Class AAAA state rankings. The Cougars, who went 1-9 last year, own a victory over 10th-ranked Wilson West Lawn. Harrisburg started 2012 with a one-point loss to Bishop McDevitt, the states top-ranked Class AAA team.
The improvement they have made over last year is unbelievable, said State College coach Al Wolski, whose team defeated the Cougars 28-0 in 2011. They are well-coached, disciplined, very athletic and come off the ball. I dont know where those kids were last year, but they have done an outstanding job of coaching kids up.
Second-year Harrisburg coach Calvin Everett said improved attitude has produced the turnaround.
The kids are working very hard and buying into what we want to do offensively, defensively and as a program, he said. They are playing hard and giving us tremendous effort.
Both teams have already endured mettle- testing road games. Missing leading rusher Andrew Kelly because of an injury, the Little Lions fell behind the Philadelphia Catholic Leagues Father Judge 14-0 last Saturday. Instead of fretting, the Little Lions scored 27 points in the middle two quarters to earn a 33-23 victory. Seniors Chris Theis and Ryan Goeke combined for 163 rushing yards, quarterback Patrick Irwin tossed long second-quarter touchdown passes to Greg Kellar and Dan Fry and the defense held the Crusaders to 245 total yards.
Its going to help us somewhere down the line, Wolski said. Whether its against a big, fast Harrisburg team, Im not sure. But it was good to see that we can do that.
Harrisburgs first half at Wilson was a disaster, with the Cougars failing to collect a first down. But the defense remained stout, quarterback Kyle Cook, running backs Domonique Shurns and Robert Martin and wide receiver Jalen Kent found fissures in Wilsons defense and the Cougars prevailed 21-13. Harrisburg followed the victory by thumping York High 38-14 last week.
The Cougars will arrive at Memorial Field hardened by a demanding stretch. They also scrimmaged reigning PIAA Class AAA champion Archbishop Wood.
We have had some good tests leading up to this game, Everett said. We have seen some top-level competition and we feel comfortable going up against that type of competition.
Wolski refuses to call anything comfortable when Harrisburg is involved. The Cougars and Little Lions have played some zany games, including one two years ago when Harrisburg scored 14 points in the final minute to drop the Little Lions to 0-5. State College leads the all-time series 5-4. Six meetings have been decided by eight or less points.
The 3-0 start, the Little Lions best since 2008, has Wolski encouraged. But he knows the next two games State College visits defending PIAA Class AAAA champion Central Dauphin next Friday will determine his teams place in the Mid- Penn hierarchy.
Its a good situation to be in, said Wolski whose program has made four straight PIAAA quarterfinal appearances. Last year we were thinking, Are we going to get to 0-4? The year before it was, Are going to get to 0-6? We have a lot more confidence and were getting a lot of new guys in there. Hopefully we continue to grow because the schedule gets a whole lot tougher this week and next week. This might be the most athletic team we see all year.
Everett said tonight is a similar gauge for his team.
Going up to State College and playing in that atmosphere and going against a 3-0 team is a big, big test for our kids, Everett said. It will definitely give me a good indication of where we stand.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter@cdtguy.