There hadn’t been much to celebrate on Friday evenings in Spring Mills over the past couple of years.
And with an 0-4 start, including three blowout losses, it didn’t look like 2012 was going to be any different for the Penns Valley football team.
But, something special happened last season, starting with a historic win over Huntingdon. That 42-21 triumph over the Bearcats, the program’s first ever against Huntingdon, triggered a streak of five wins over the final six games.
And with many players returning from that bounce-back 5-5 season, there’s a renewed sense of optimism that the Rams could be contenders for a District 6 Class AA playoff spot this fall.
“We have a large number of returnees, and that’s big,” Penns Valley coach Martin Tobias said. “We graduated nine seniors out of the 44 guys that we had on the team. We’re looking to have our guys take the next step with the growth and maturity that they’ve experienced. That success has made them hungry for more.”
Players agree that the way things ended last season — which also included wins over Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellefonte, Bucktail and Mount Union — has them jacked up this fall.
“There’s a lot of seniors coming back, so they know how to win and what winning feels like,” quarterback Cameron Tobias said. “I feel 5-5 was good, but we want to get better and we’ll keep working to get better.”
“The expectations are very high,” running back Taylor Collison added. “Being .500 last year and as young as we were, we definitely have a chance to do some special things this year.”
Cameron Tobias and Collison are two of the big playmakers who return on offense.
Cameron Tobias, Martin’s son, shook off a slow start and was excellent down the stretch. He finished the season 93 of 171 for 1,252 yards passing with six scores and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 352 yards and four touchdowns.
“I worked on my footwork, especially running the option,” Cameron Tobias said. “I need to have that speed. I also worked on reading coverages. I threw interceptions that I didn’t want to throw last year. We need to keep the ball. When the other team doesn’t have the ball, we can win.”
Martin Tobias is looking to see Cameron, a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, grow in several areas.
“I need to see him take that next step as a leader,” Martin Tobias said. “When he was a junior, there were strong seniors that could carry that. I need to see the growth in little areas that a coach always critiques — better decisions, making better passes, better communication with his teammates on the field. All of those things that sort of continued to progress throughout the year, he needs to build on that.”
Cameron will have some help.
Collison was all over the field last season. He led the Rams in both rushing (462 yards on 86 carries) and receiving (29 catches for 348 yards).
Collison wants to be in the middle of the action again this season.
“I definitely like the role of being a playmaker,” he said. “I want to be the person they give the ball and the other teams key on. But I don’t want to sound too cocky or confident. It’s really the whole team.”
Kevin Butts and Kenny Grubb anchor a strong offensive line. Big targets Luke Weaver (23 catches, 423 yards) and Ian Brown (16 catches, 245 yards) also return. Weaver is dangerous carrying the ball near the goal line, having scored five touchdowns on 10 carries last season.
Defense may determine the real success for the Rams. In four of its five losses, Penns Valley allowed more than 40 points. In their five wins, the Rams allowed an average of 13 points per game.
Penns Valley returns most of its top tacklers, including linebacker Liam Benfer, a physical 6-foot-3, 210-pounder.
“We definitely need to be able to stop the run short,” said Benfer, who led the Rams with 70 tackles. “We also want our deep coverage tight.”
Kicker Andrew Deardorff and punter Cameron Tobias also return.
It’s a solid cast, looking to build upon last season’s late success.
“It gave us a little bit of a taste of what we’re looking for,” Martin Tobias said of the last fall. “We feel we got real close to getting over the hump. Finishing 5-5 was a big step up from the previous couple of years. These guys are really excited about taking it to the next step.”
“We had some injuries last year that hurt, but we’re getting those guys back,” Cameron Tobias added. “We have the talent and the experience to show the league what we’re made of.”