1963 undefeated Chucks set to be honored at tonight's home opener

PUNXSUTAWNEY — I would say to close your eyes for a second and imagine someone that you've always looked up to being in your presence, watching you work. But if I did that, you wouldn't be able to read The Spirit.

So let's imagine with our eyes open and our attention still on the article, shall we?

Now that you have the person or group in your head, can you imagine the butterflies that would be running through you as they watch you do what they did?

Personally, if Rick Reilly was here at 510 Pine St. and pulled up a chair beside me, I would get carpal tunnel immediately.

For the Punxsy Chucks football team, they'll be in the midst of local legends on Friday night for their home opener against the Union Knights.

Exactly 50 years ago, the members of the local community experienced perfection in the most literal sense of the word, as the 1963 football team posted a perfect record under coach Jack Hart.

Hart and quarterback James "Mickey" Depp led the Chucks to a perfect record and their first Western Pennsylvania Football Conference championship.

Tonight, the boys are back in town, as they'll be honored during halftime at Jack L. LaMarca Memorial Stadium.

"It's a great thing for this week, as we honor our 1963 undefeated team. We have several guys that didn't play that early, but were a part of the coach Hart era where they won 68 games in 10 years with phenomenal teams," Punxsy head coach Alan Nichol said. "We talk about it quite a bit because of the experiences of the coaches that are there."

Nichol knows what these guys meant to the area. As a Chuck himself in the late 70s, he was well aware of the tradition that was handed down.

"The thing about it is, in my experience from playing for Punxsy in the late 70s, we were very well aware of the tradition that we have come out of in the 60s. The coaches that came back and coached me, these guys had played for coach Hart," Nichol explained. "At the time, we looked up to those guys. It was kind of a tradition from one group to the next. It's quite a honor to be into that tradition."

And 50 years later, the tradition continues at Punxsutawney Area High School.

Tonight, with members of the 1963 team in attendance, the Chucks will make their 2013 home debut.

Will having the local legends in attendance add pressure to an already big game?

"I can't answer that for them," Nichol said. "When you're an athlete and you're competing, the true competitor will have that same pressure
regardless of what's going on around them. When you get on that field, you're trying to win every play. I would hope we can keep that in perspective so that we can keep our minds on the task at hand."

It will, however, allow for the current Chucks to show the past Chucks what skills they have to offer.

"I feel that young people see it as an opportunity to display their skills in front of more people. That's always exciting," Nichol said. "I don't think pressure is the right word; it just makes it a little bit easier to prepare each day in practice if you know that's coming."

While the ceremony is coming and will be something you won't want to miss, there's 48 minutes of football to be played, too.

The Chucks are coming off a 25-22 defeat to the Brookville Raiders.

After a few days to review the tape of the game, Nichol sounded very pleased with what he saw.

"I think, on the positive side, we have a lot of guys that saw and played their first varsity football game in a pretty hostile environment. A lot of them came through with flying colors," Nichol said. "They've been working hard as a group, and the positives were scoring 22 points on offense with other opportunities to get more. The offensive line went out there with just one player with varsity experience going against a very veteran defensive line for Brookville."

But as indicative by the score, not all of the bananas in the bunch were ripe.

"There were some places where we had breakdowns. Defensively, we need to learn to deal with a state-quality athlete. Zach Vroman is a state-quality athlete," Nichol said. "He came out at tailback and played the way a confident varsity football player plays. We have to catch up to that. We have to take good angles and do the things we need to do to
tackle someone like him."

After setting the Brookville school rushing record by one yard with 306, could Nichol get a true gauge on how his run defense really is against a guy of that caliber?

"I would say that, generally, we were in the right place. We have to take better angles," Nichol said. "When you get there, what angle are you at to make the tackle? I think all of the teams that we are going to see are going to have that part of their game that has that extraordinary portion. Last week against Brookville it was running back."

If every team has that special part of its game, what would Union's be, coach?

"This week against Union, it could be the speed on the defense. It's always going to be something that their team relies on to make them successful," Nichol said. "As we go through the season, our guys have to adjust to that and can't let the game go on without making those adjustments."

The Knights are coming off of a 36-7 shellacking of A.C. Valley last week.

In the contest, Dylan Shirey carried the ball for 117 yards and two touchdowns, as well as contributing nine tackles on the defensive side.

Shane Murphy hauled in three receptions for 107 yards and three scores, while Cody Stockdill recorded 16 tackles in the game.

The Knights, for many years, were a program that struggled mightily.
Over the past few years, they've been able to turn the program around.

"Coach David Louder has been there and installed his system. They play a very sound defense with a lot of speed on the field. It makes it hard to find places to go, because there are defenders there," Nichol explained.
"There's such good teaching going on there. There's solid offense there, as they don't make mistakes. That's a good recipe for success when you have terrific defense and no turnovers."

The defense that Union has, as Nichol explained it, is a 4-3, two-deep defense. While 4-3 defenses aren't uncommon at the high school level, Nichol said that Louder's is one that is normally more geared toward the college game.

Nichol said that he was pleased at the games that Christian Falgout and Perry Arrington had running the ball, so expect much of the same tonight.

But is running the ball the key to defeating the Knights?

"The key to victory is to continue to improve every week. Defensively, we're going to have to tackle better. Our guys were around the ball, but we have to make the play there," Nichol said. "Offensively, we were very pleased with how we did. We have to continue to improve. When you're dealing with speed on defense instead of size, you've really got to execute and know where you're going with the ball. We want to stay away from the turnovers."

Controlling the tempo of the game will be the duo of Matt Burkett and Dakota Thomas under center. In a platoon last week, the two quarterbacks led the Chucks to 22 points.

Not bad for their first varsity starts.

"In their first varsity starts, they did a very good job. They fit the niche that we wanted. Matt Burkett had a touchdown pass and marched down the field to set us up for another. I was very happy with that," Nichol said. "Dakota Thomas gave us a spark with his legs. Like every part of our team, we have room to grow and improve. To go out, move the ball and score 22 points on Brookville, we got the results."

Since the first day of camp, Nichol has said that he's going to utilize both Thomas' and Burkett's skills at quarterback. Last week, Nichol named Burkett the starter on Wednesday for the Brookville game.

Well then, coach, who can we expect to see take the first snaps tonight.

"After the kickoff, we'll tell you who's going out there," Nichol said.

Oh, okay. Well can we get any clue?

"We'll see what package we will start with. Before the game starts, we can't say. They're certainly both going to play, and we will use both of their packages to our advantage," Nichol said. "As we go in and see the style of play of the other team, we try to match up for our advantage. I think that's a positive place to be. You don't very often get the chance to have two quarterbacks that are varsity ready. It's a big plus."

Regardless of who starts the game for Punxsy, the place will be rocking.

If last Friday's away game is any indication, then the Punxsy fans will come out in full force for the home opener.

"I think the players look forward to going out there and being a part of the tradition that has been laid out there by some of those extraordinary teams," Nichol said. "I can tell you that in practice, we've had very spirited sessions. They know they'll be playing in front of the hometown, and we appreciate the support that we had at the Brookville game. We had a great turnout, and I would just tell the fans stick with us. We have a young team, and we're working very hard."

Nichol encourages everyone to take advantage of the Friday night fun.

"Come out and enjoy your Friday night and all of the things that go with it. We have the band and cheerleaders performing at the same time and a lot of good positives that happen in a high school stadium," Nichol said. "I think, all-in-all, the general feeling is that it's going to be great to be up there on our home field, with our home crowd and it's extra incentive with the 1963 team coming in. We're going to honor them with the legacy that they left us. We're going to do everything we can to be successful."