Perhaps it was divine intervention.
Or maybe it was just the right timing.
Whatever brought St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy and coaches Steve Guthoff and John Franco together has the football program on the upswing.
The Wolves, 2-7 last season, added Guthoff as the head coach and Franco as an assistant in April after former coach Dave Carson stepped down after the 2015 season.
Now, 2016 will be the fourth season for St. Joseph’s football — and it’ll be a critical campaign.
“You need to win football games, there’s no doubt about it,” said Guthoff, whose team opens its season at 7 p.m. Friday at Bald Eagle Area. “You make sure that people understand that there’s a sustainable winning program in place. ... This year is really important for us.”
If anyone in the region knows about success in high school football, it’s Guthoff and Franco.
The two bring more than 60 years of coaching experience — Franco has 38 years of sideline patrolling under his belt, 31 as a head coach split between Altoona and Tyrone. At Tyrone, Franco led the Eagles to the PIAA Class AA finals three times, winning in 1999.
Guthoff was on his staff at both Tyrone and Altoona, and throughout years of coaching in high school and college has also coached at Bald Eagle Area, Bellefonte and Philipsburg-Osceola.
In short, these two know football, and everyone at SJCA understands that.
Wolves Athletic Director Chad Walsh has watched from afar, admiring how quickly Guthoff and Franco have laid the groundwork.
“They’ve had success, and they’ve had success together,” Walsh said. “It’s like they’re getting the band back together. ... They have their plan in place.”
It won’t be easy for the coaching duo. Numbers aren’t on the Wolves’ side, losing five letterwinners to graduation and hovering around 20 players on the 2016 roster.
Add in that there’s not a single senior on the squad, and Guthoff is faced with a tall order.
“Our goal is to be competitive every football game. We game plan to win,” Guthoff said. “But we also understand that we don’t have any seniors, and it’s the first year under a different staff. We have a lot of underclassmen playing.”
A few of those underclassmen will need to step into sizable roles this year.
In particular, Guthoff will be leaning on the likes of Rocco Chirieleison, Brendan Robinson and Zac Sechler. Chirieleison and Robinson, both juniors, will be playing guard and quarterback, respectively, while Sechler, a sophomore, will be a linebacker and running back.
Robinson, who is making his first start at quarterback on Friday at Bald Eagle Area, said it’s been somewhat difficult nailing down Guthoff and Franco’s system, but is confident heading into the season opener.
“I’m trying to learn the whole offense and whatnot, and it’s kind of hard because we’ve got a lot of new players,” Robinson said. “But it’s going pretty well.”
Meanwhile, Chirieleison is amped for the matchup with BEA, the kind of game Guthoff believes is critical to the program’s success.
Win or lose, Guthoff believes playing the likes of BEA and, later in the season, Philipsburg-Osceola, gives the Wolves a legitimate foot in the door to the Centre County football community.
“Those are the teams we need to be able to play,” the head coach said. “It gives us another game for football fans in Centre County to watch. ... Playing in Centre County has to become special to us.”
That starts Friday night.
But what started before the opener was, as Walsh previously mentioned, the foundation.
Taking these 20 or so players to start, the school is confident in Guthoff and Franco’s ability to turn Wolves football into something recognizable.
Instant success might not come this season, but the chips have been pushed to the middle of the table.
St. Joseph’s is betting on Guthoff and Franco.
“This is putting our money where our mouth is with the football program,” Walsh said. “It would be easy to be discouraged with the numbers we’ve seen over the past four seasons. This year our numbers are about the same, but we feel really good.
“We’re not going to roll over. ... We started something, and we want to finish it.”
St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy
Head coach: Steve Guthoff (first season)
Assistant coaches: John Franco, Murray Fetzer, Dontey Brown, Fran Gray, Richard Ciambotti, Christian Klepeiss
Record last year: 2-7
Returning letterwinners: Chris Chirieleison, Rocco Chirieleison, Nate Gray, Blake Murray, Brendan Robinson, Zachary Sechler, Theo Spychalski, Jarod Stormer
Key newcomers: Colton Young, Ben Heim, Rieli Redman