By Lisa Byers
It was early Wednesday evening and Cochranton head coach Nathan Liberty was already a bit giddy.
“I hate waiting like this,” the first-year coach said. “I wish we could play tomorrow. I’m excited. The guys are excited.”
All that excitement at Cochranton has to do with the Cardinals’ Region 2 clash with first place Eisenhower tonight in Russell. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
The Knights stand atop the region standings at a perfect 3-0 after their 26-25 win over Mercyhurst Prep (2-2, 2-1 Region 2) last week. Cochranton is 2-1 in the conference and with a win over the Knights would move into a tie for first place in Region 2.
Both teams are 3-1 overall.
“We got a little gift from God,” Liberty said. “Stuff like this doesn’t just get handed to you. We have to take advantage of it. Our kids are pumped.”
Cochranton hasn’t been in a region title race in football since winning the French Valley Conference in 2003. But the Cardinals got a good taste of what it is like to be in the midst of one just two weeks ago when they took on Mercyhurst at Veterans Stadium in Erie.
“I was worried because they hadn’t ever been in that stadium before,” Liberty said. “They were kind of a little shellshocked. But they didn’t quit. It gave us some momentum and now we get another chance to win a big game.”
And Liberty knows his team is going to have to play a complete football game in order for that to happen.
“They are a very good football team,” Liberty said of Eisenhower. “They are a very hardnosed fighting football team. We better be ready for a dog fight because that is what we are going to be in.”
Liberty said the biggest task for the Cardinals tonight will be stopping senior running back John Pascuzzi, who through four games is already more than halfway to 1,000 yards for the season. Pascuzzi has carried the ball 81 times for 587 yards and has five touchdowns.
“We have to stop No. 23,” Liberty said. “He had 40 carries last week.”
Liberty said his defensive line is ready for the challenge and does have a personal goal regarding the number of carries and yards Pascuzzi finishes with tonight. Of course, Liberty and Co. weren’t about to disclose that information.
Cochranton has a pretty solid running back itself with which the Knights will have to concern themselves. In fact, that is just one of several similarities between the two teams.
“To be really honest, they are a very scary team,” Eisenhower coach Jim Penley said of Cochranton. “They remind me a lot of ourselves. They have a beast at running back. They have a couple nice tall receivers. They have a nice quarterback, who is a good athlete and runs and throws well.”
That aforementioned Cochranton running back is Austin Andrews, who enters the game with 353 yards on 51 carries and eight touchdowns. Andrews could see a few more carries than usual tonight with Tyler Buchan and Jamar Moody not expected to suit up due to injuries sustained during the win against Union City a week ago.
Joining Andrews in the backfield is quarterback Chad Eisenhooth. Eisenhooth is a dual threat. He has completed 32 of 61 passes for 578 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He has also ran for 219 yards on 44 carries with five touchdowns.
Eisenhower, whose lone loss came against Mercer in Week 1, is averaging 30 points per game and is allowing 20. Cochranton is averaging 45.5 points per game and is also surrendering 20.
“This is a huge game,” Penley said. “We’re both sitting up there in the top three in our region. And it’s starting to get to the point where the playoffs are starting to work their way out. This is big for the both of us.”
The Cards are coming off a dominating win over Union City — a rebound victory following their loss to Mercyhurst Prep in Week 3.
Eisenhower, meanwhile, is coming off a thrilling win over the Lakers.
“Any time you get one of us small country schools without the advantages of the city schools and you go out and get a win, it’s a really big deal,” Penley said. “I’m always happy for the county schools when they are able to get a win.”
Pascuzzi had 250 yards rushing in that win.
“He’s having a really good year,” Penley said. “He’s been a good ball player for us. He’s a lot like the Andrews kid. He has really good speed and like Andrews you don’t take him down with a single tackle.”