Cougars’ 2007 ti­tle team still evokes mem­o­ries

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - SUNDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK - BY STEVE STAL­LONE AS­SIS­TANT SPORTS ED­I­TOR

Cougar foot­ball fans, and mem­bers of one of the most ac­com­plished grid­iron teams in Ha­zle­ton and Ha­zle­ton Area his­tory took a stroll down mem­ory lane to­gether this week­end. The emo­tions, the love and the mem­o­ries came pour­ing back.

Ten years ear­lier, the 2007 Cougars dom­i­nated like few oth­ers be­fore them or any team has since.

They pow­ered their way to a 9-1 record and the Wy­oming Val­ley Con­fer­ence Di­vi­sion I cham­pi­onship, then took the Le­high Val­ley by storm dur­ing an un­for­get­table three-week ride through the District 2-4-11 Class 4 A play­offs, ad­vanc­ing fur­ther than any Cougar foot­ball team had be­fore or has since.

Prior to Fri­day night’s g ame with Abing­ton Heights, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of that spe­cial team were back at Har­man-Geist Memorial Field, hon­ored on the very turf where they turned in many a mag­i­cal per­for­mance dur­ing their play­ing days.

Among those able to re­turn were head coach Rocco Petrone, and 2007 play­ers Matt Star­rick, Joe Se­manchik, Billy Ric­cette, Matt Car­lyon, Kyle Med­vitz, Zack Kos­tic, Gregg Hunter and Nate Eachus. They rep­re­sented an ex­tended fam­ily of play­ers and coaches whose re­la­tion­ship went be­yond foot­ball and re­mains as strong a decade later.

“It’s the play­ers that made it spe­cial. They re­ally bought into the pro­gram, they wanted to win, they wanted to work hard. But most im­por­tantly they en­joyed be­ing around each other and they were like fam­ily,” Petrone said prior to the cer­e­monies. “They made it fun for me and they made me look much bet­ter than what I am.”

Coach­ing a group that in­cluded all-star cal­iber play­ers at most po­si­tions, and a First Team All-State per­former in Eachus, Petrone and his staff guided the Cougars through a dif­fi­cult reg­u­lar-sea­son sched­ule that in­cluded ri­vals Ber­wick, Wy­oming Val­ley West and Pittston Area. Al­though the Cougars reached the play­offs on a roll, few if any could have pre­dicted what would hap­pen next.

In the sub re­gional opener against Eas­ton, Eachus rushed for 263 yards and four touch­downs, in­clud­ing the game-win­ner in a 36-29 dou­ble-over­time thriller against the Red Rovers.

One week later in Beth­le­hem the Cougars took down state-ranked

Lib­erty 21-20 as Eachus ran for 387 yards, in­clud­ing the game-win­ning 82-yard run with 1:23 to play.

Go­ing for their third straight up­set of a Le­high Val­ley power, the Cougars trav­elled to Park­land the fol­low­ing week and had the thir­dranked Tro­jans in trou­ble too. With Eachus pro­duc­ing 192 yards rush­ing and 11 tack­les on de­fense, the Cougars had an­other win in their sights be­fore a blocked field goal in the fi­nal sec­onds sealed a 16-14 Park­land vic­tory.

It was a dif fi­cult end­ing to a re­mark­able 11-2 cam­paign that is still talked about to­day.

“It was one sea­son to re­mem­ber for sure. I think the sea­son speaks for it­self,” said Joe “Chief ” Se­manchik, a stand­out two-way line­man that sea­son and one of the or­ga­niz­ers of Fri­day’s re­union. “It was cut short, un­for­tu­nately, on the blocked field goal, which is one of the things that sticks out. But you’ve got to think about all the g reat things that we did and ev­ery­body, the se­niors, ju­niors, sopho­mores, all of us com­ing to­gether. It was one hell of a sea­son.”

Kyle Med­vitz, a line­man on the 2007 squad, will never for­get the sea­son — or his ex­tended fam­ily.

“It was a fa­vorite time of my life. Even now, see­ing th­ese guys, it gives me the goose bumps and the chills, just talk­ing about what we went through, the fam­ily we had,” Med­vitz said. “We still com­mu­ni­cate and we’re still to­gether. I think it’s one of those things that you re­ally can’t ex­plain it, the feel­ing of fam­ily and the love that there was for each other. You’d look over your

shoul­der know­ing the per­son next to you had your back.”

Eachus, who de­layed a re­tur n trip to his home in Florida to be here Fri­day, agreed.

“It’s spe­cial to be back, be­cause th­ese are the guys that had my back,” Eachus said. “My fel­low cap­tain Gregg Hunter block­ing for me, other guys cheer­ing for me. I can say those guys were my team­mates.”

Eachus went on to have an All-Amer­i­can ca­reer at Col­gate Univer­sity and spent one sea­son with the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL. He was at Col­gate last week­end where he was in­ducted into the school’s Hall of Honor.

“Eighty guys from high school, 80 guys in col­lege, and 50 guys in the NFL. I’ve only had so many team­mates in my life, so th­ese guys are spe­cial guys.”

Petrone said the seeds to that team’s suc­cess — and the prog ram’s, for that mat­ter — were planted two years ear­lier.

“Two years prior to that sea­son, they walked off the field in ’05 and lost to Lib­erty by more points (42-7) than we lost to any­body,” Petrone re­called. “We had a meet­ing after­ward and said ‘what do we need to do to get that good?’”

Led by a great group of se­niors — sopho­mores on that 2005 squad — the Cougars raised their level of play, and showed that they could play with any­body in the state.

“When that ’07 sea­son started, we started get­ting on a roll and they weren’t sat­is­fied,” Petrone said. “The loved play­ing. There wasn’t any an­i­mos­ity. They pushed each

other. They were each other’s big­gest fans. They were spe­cial.”

Those who spoke on Fri­day night still couldn’t get the heart­break­ing loss to Park­land out of their mind 10 years later. The thought of “what if ” is still brought up. Had they knocked off Park­land, they would have moved on to the state quar­ter­fi­nals. Park­land reached the ti­tle game again that sea­son.

“Ab­so­lutely, I think about it all the time,” Med­vitz said. “We were just talk­ing about how all of us, ev­ery once in a while drive down past Park­land and see that sta­dium and it gives all of us that feel­ing that you don’t like. It would have been nice to see what could have hap­pened if we would have beat Park­land.”

“I also think about one thing: 7- yard line against Park land ,” Petrone said. “I knew we were the bet­ter team. When we walked off the field, the Park­land coaches said to me ‘you were the bet­ter team tonight.’ But I’m proud of them and I’m proud to be as­so­ci­ated with them. Would I take any­thing from that sea­son back? No. I wouldn’t change any­thing about it. That’s the way it was writ­ten.”

Ten years later, mem­bers of that team still main­tain roots with the pro­gram. Star­rick and Ric­cette are on the var­sity coach­ing staff, and Se­manchik coaches with the fresh­man team. Eachus served as a vol­un­teer as­sis­tant with the Cougars after play­ing for the Chiefs. They want the pro­gram, which has bat­tled through seven straight non­win­ning sea­sons, to suc­ceed. They all hope what they did on the field can be a source of mo­ti­va­tion for the cur­rent and fu­ture Cougars.

Cur­rent head coach Mike Bren­nan feels they did just that on Fri­day.

“It was ex­cit­ing to see those guys come back and en­joy the night,” Bren­nan said. “Th­ese (wins) are hard to come by, so you en­joy ev­ery sin­gle one of them, and I def­i­nitely think the 2007 team had an im­pact on our guys tonight.

“Those kids came in be­fore the game and they had a nice mes­sage for the kids about tough­ness and liv­ing in the mo­ment, how they miss it and how im­por­tant it’s go­ing to be to make mem­o­ries here on the field. Our kids went out tonight from the start and I think re­ally con­trolled the game from the start.”

Se­manchik said that is one of the main pur­poses of there union game, which he help start in 2016.

“The whole re­union game that we started was to bring some life back into the pro­gram, get some alumni back here and hope­fully the kids that are play­ing now see that and will look at it and go ‘Hey, Ha­zle­ton foot­ball, it is some se­ri­ously good foot­ball.’”

On Fri­day the 2007 Cougars rekin­dled mem­o­ries of an amaz­ing run by an amaz­ing group of young men and coaches. And it lives on with them to­day, no mat­ter where they are in their lives.

“I think about it all the time,” Eachus said. “I’ll put in the Lib­erty game, I’ll put in the high­light tapes, Val­ley West. They all bring back good mem­o­ries. It was a lot of fun.”

“Do I think about it? Sure I do. I do be­cause it’s great mem­o­ries,” noted Petrone. “Not just that year, be­cause I don’t want that year to de­fine the pro­gram. Ev­ery sea­son was spe­cial. That year was spe­cial be­cause of those kids, and each class was rep­re­sented. I think we had four or five sopho­mores start­ing, and the se­niors were out­stand­ing. The names will pop up: Nate Eachus, Richie Matz, Joey Kost. But there were so many good play­ers.”

“We started this re­union game last year and I got so much pos­i­tive feed­back on it,” Se­manchik said. “Just see­ing the guys once they’re to­gether, it’s like noth­ing’s changed. It’s the same as it was that sea­son.”

A sea­son no Cougar fan — or 2007 team mem­ber — will ever for­get.

“It was a great sea­son,” said Med­vitz, “and it still stands as one of the best sea­sons Ha­zle­ton ever had.”

STEVE STAL­LONE / STAFF PHOTO

Nate Eachus, sec­ond from left, waves to the crowd dur­ing pregame cer­e­monies Fri­day evening hon­or­ing the 2007 Ha­zle­ton Area foot­ball team prior to the Cougars’ game with Abing­ton Heights. Rep­re­sent­ing the District 2 Class 4A cham­pi­onship team are, from left: Head coach Rocco Petrone, Eachus, Gregg Hunter, Zack Kos­tic, Kyle Med­vitz, Matt Car­lyon, Billy Ric­cette, Joe Se­manchik and Matt Star­rick.

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