PUNXSUTAWNEY â€” Rivalries. They're one of the best, most intense happenings in the sports' world.
On any level of play, in any sport, you see these rivalries take place each year.
Michigan vs. Ohio State and Auburn vs. Alabama exemplify rivalries in major collegiate athletics. The same can be said on the hardwood with the battles that the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils have
endured over the years.
The Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalance still have a hatred rivalry, dating back to the mid-90s and the epic playoff battles that ensued.
When you think rivalries, you think New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, or the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens.It's two fanbases that dislike each other and two teams that go back-and-forth in the outcomes of the games.
Rivalries, in the most simplistic term, are awesome.
But in Jefferson County, there is one rivalry that matters more than any other; especially for those who live in or between Punxsutawney and Brookville â€” The Route 36 rivalry.
After two scrimmages, the two schools are in session and ready to kick-off their respective football seasons.
When the schedule was made, even if the coaches won't say it, the fans circled the first game of the season that features the Punxsutawney Chucks and the Brookville Raiders in a head-to-head matchup.
"To me, we focus on that next opponent. That next opponent is the most important opponent because it's the only one that you can prepare for," Punxsy head coach Alan Nichol said. "It's all the same. To me, it's one week at a time and one game at a time. It's the important game that week."
Nichol pulled out the cliche, but he knows the importance of the ballgame.
Being a coach at different schools, Nichol has seen his share of rivalries.
Where does The Route 36 battle fall?
"I think you always compare it to your own high school experience. I think the thing about the rivalry is that Brookville has really, over the last 25 years, built up a really good, solid program," Nichol said. "Coach Chris Dworek has been in charge of it for 18 years now, and I always look forward to having a good, clean rivalry. It's a rivalry where both teams have respect for one another. Coach Dworek and I have the chance in the offseason to run into each other at various places. It's a good camaraderie in terms of competition."
Being a veteran of sorts with the game, Dworek knows the importance that this game has on the local communities.
"It's a historic, very friendly rival. It's not an ugly one where people rip up other people's property," Dworek said. "They play hard against each other and talk their version of smack against each other. Everyone is excited for the first game of the season, and the fact it's against Punxsy brings another level of excitement."
Nichol echoed Dworek's comments, saying it's great to see two local towns get so excited over high school football.
"We like to see the sportsmanship and have the winners of the game walk out with grace and the losers walk out with honor. That's how I look at it," Nichol said. "It's nice to have something with two communities that are only separated by 17 miles and are bordering each other to be excited about high school students and high school athletics. It's a great thing."
If the rivalry did get out of hand at any point, one person who would know about it would be Punxsutawney Borough Police Chief Tom Fedigan.
For the most part, however, Fedigan agrees with Nichol and Dworek about the calmness of the rivalry.
"There's a lot of respect between the two teams," Fedigan said. "It has become more fierce in the last couple of years. I think it's just the kids that both programs are growing. Every year, coach Dworek puts together a great product. No matter what the talent is, his team is always ready to play. It's exciting."
Fedigan loves to see the communities show their respective support for the two programs, but for him, the game means a little bit more this year than in past contests.
"This year, it's more important than any other year because both Mayor Jim Wehlre of Punxsutawney and Mayor David "Chip" Wonderling of Brookville are retiring after this season," Fedigan, father of football
player Andrew Fedigan, said. "It's exciting, and I'm hopeful that we pull out the victory because I want my mayor to have the cup as he departs his office at the end of the year."
Wehrle is hoping that the Chucks can pull out the victory one last time for him.
"It's been a lot of fun. Hopefully we win," Wehrle said. "Like the chief said, I have a lot of respect for both coaches and both programs. We'll see what happens. We've had a lot of fun joking around with each other, so we'll see what happens."
While both Wehrle and Wonderling will be stepping down from their respective positions this year, Wehrle coudn't give a clear answer as to whether or not the Mayor's Cup Trophy that the winning school takes each year would come to an end as well.
"We really haven't discussed that yet, but hopefully it will be [retired]," Wehrle said. "It depends on what the new mayors of Punxsy and Brookville want to do."
When the mayor and police chief are getting in on the action, you know it's all the buzz around town.
Coach wants his team to focus on taking the season one game at a time, but he does realize the importance that The Route 36 Trophy has to the team.
Remember, the winning team will hold onto the trophy, which is in its 20th year, for a full year and have bragging rights, as the trophy will be on display in its respective school.
"I think it's a goal to look forward to. Seniors are seeing everything for the last time. Every little goal you have out there for your team, be it the Route 36 Cup or Conference Championship; each goal that they can acquire in their last time through really means a lot," Nichol said.
"You look how they approach the game, especially the seniors; this is their last opportunity to be the winners and achieve that goal."
He won't say it, but winning that trophy means just as much to Nichol as it does to his players.
Dworek feels the same as Nichol and wants his seniors to be able to win the trophy one last time after losing last year's contest to the Chucks 26-23.
"We talk about it. We have a tradition where we used to take it out on
the practice field and keep it in my classroom. It's neat," Dworek said.
"It tells the history about every game. It would be nice to have it for a year and get back into habits we like to have when we have it."
After two scrimmages, Nichol feels that his team is prepared for the opening game and has officially named his starting quarterback.
"We saw a lot of improvement in that week from the first scrimmage to the second. It was a good effort by our guys to improve from the first scrimmage and show they're ready for game week," Nichol said. "Matt Burkett will take the first snaps. Burkett's had a good camp; Dakota Thomas has, too. We're going by style of play. Right now, Burkett's going to get the nod tonight. Thomas has his package and we'll go from there."
As for what he can expect the Raiders to bring to the table in the 43rd meeting between the schools, well, he really isn't sure.
"It's hard to tell what to expect with it being the first game. Brookville has a very good line and a 1,000-yard rusher coming back. That's going to make them a very ominous foe," Nichol said. "They have a lot of good parts of a team there. It's going to be a real challenge for us."
That 1,000-yard back that Nichol was referring to is Zach Vroman.
Vroman tallied 1,170 rushing yards last year; including 202 on 18 carries in last year's matchup with Punxsy.
Winning the contest is the ultimate goal, but slowing down Vroman will allow the Chucks to achieve it.
"When you compete against players that have that type of talent, you're going to have plays made against you. You've got to be able to come back the next play and rise to the occasion so that the one play doesn't turn into two plays or three plays or a dominant half," Nichol explained.
"When you play against a player that's the quality of Vroman, you've got to be resilient. You have to play every down for 48 minutes and then see what happens. The good players are going to make the plays on both sides of the ball. It's a matter of understanding that, coming back and focusing on the next play."
The Chucks have a talented back of their own in Christian Falgout. Falgout racked up 693 yards and eight scores on the ground last season as the second back.
Along with Falgout, Brookville will also have to contend with wide receiver Clayton Dale.
"Yeah, they're definitely two guys that we know who they are, and they've had good success last year," Dworek said. "It's a total team effort, not just the corners and linebackers. The defensive unit has to play as a group and they know that. If they do the little things, it'll help everybody."
In an interesting plot-twist, if the Raiders tonight, it won't only
allow Brookville to regain the trophy, but it would also allow Dworek to collect victory No. 100 of his career.
"Really, for me, No. 100 isn't any better than 99 or 20. Honestly, it's not a big deal," Dworek said. "If we can beat Punxsy, I'll be happy. It won't be more intense or I won't be happier. The kids and I haven't even talked about that yet."
Nichol said that the rivalry will be felt throughout the atmosphere, but they are focused on more important things throughout the evening.
"That first game is a way to acquire that maturity you need as a team to go through the season. We're looking for that. We're looking for concentration on each play and trying to win every play. We'll let things take care of themselves," Nichol said. "We're focused on that and trying to come out to do our best. We're trying to execute our assignments. We're focused on that, maybe not as much on the rivalry. That will take care of itself when you get into the atmosphere of the game."
Since the rivalry renewed itself in 1993, Brookville holds a 14-6 advantage over Punxsy. However, in recent years, it's been the Chucks who have been the dominate figure, winning three of the past four matchups with the Raiders.
Keys to the game for Punxsy:
Stick with what you know
Nichol said that he wants to run the ball, then run the ball some more and then keep running the ball.
For the Chucks to defeat the Raiders, they need to give the ball to Falgout, Perry Arrington and Travis Perry throughout the game.
Nichol said he wants a 50-50 split of running and passing plays, but will probably end up at 60-40.
With two inexperienced quarterbacks, running the ball will keep the defense honest, and allow the Chucks to air it out through playaction passes.
The play of the offensive line
The big guys up front don't get enough credit at any level of football. The Chucks have 10 guys who will rotate in and out throughout the course of the ballgame, led by left guard Luke Shiock.
Opening lanes for Falgout, Arrington and Perry will be a big key for the Chucks. In
the passing game, how will the young line be in passing situations?
They'll need to pick up their assignments to give Burkett and Thomas enough time to go through their progressions.
Play as a whole on the defensive side
The Raiders return Vroman fresh off an 1,100-yard campaign. In the 4-2-5 defensive scheme that Nichol runs, expect the safeties to play close to the line of scrimmage to attempt to slow Vroman down.
Set Burkett up to succeed
Nichol's offense has a lot of West Coast style to it. While establishing the run first, Nichol will allow Burkett to make the short throws against the Brookville defense.
Look for plenty of playaction and swing passes in Burkett's first start for the Chucks.