Cougars’ 2007 title team still evokes memories
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.”
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.