ATHENS — It’s rivalry week.
No, you didn’t sleep through the first nine games of the season. The Northern Tier League has moved all of its rivalry contests to the first week of play during the 2020 campaign, which has been severely altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That means the Rusty Rail game will kick off the season for both the Athens Wildcats and Sayre Redskins.
Longtime Athens coach Jack Young knows it will be different playing the Redskins in the first week, but he also noted that “everything is a lot different.”
“I mean there is nothing that’s normal right now. Probably the only normalcy we’re getting is when we cross the line and go on the field, that’s the closest, so to me I think it’s good for the community,” Young said.
The Wildcats are coming off a rough 1-10 campaign, while the Redskins won the Northern Tier League Small School title and finished with an 8-3 record.
In the rivalry, the Redskins have now won two straight Rusty Rail games after Athens went on a 17-game streak.
“It’s definitely fun. Obviously, the kids all get excited about it and both towns get excited about it. It’s definitely a fun experience. It reminds me of the Cortland-Ithaca game when I was up at Cortland. The kids are all fired up and all the fans are ready to go,” said third-year Sayre coach Kevin Gorman, who has won both of his Rusty Rail games as head coach.
“That’s just a credit to my kids and coaching staff,” he said of the first two wins over Athens.
Last year’s game went down to the wire despite Athens entering with one win and Sayre having one of their best seasons in recent memory. The Redskins had to rally from a 14-point deficit and scored with just over three minutes left on their way to a 21-14 win.
“It’s just kind of how it is ... all the games when you’re playing a rival are going to be a tough, no matter what the record is,” Gorman said.
Gorman is expecting another battle with the Wildcats.
“I thought their line was pretty big. (They have) a lot of size up front. I thought they moved Wellsboro decently well (in the scrimmage last weekend),” Gorman said. “Their skill guys, the (Shayne) Reid kid is a really good running back. He hurt us a little last year, and then watching game tape from last year, he hurt a lot of teams.”
The Sayre coach also pointed to the Wildcats’ passing attack led by quarterback Mason Lister and wide receiver JJ Babcock.
“The Babcock kid on the outside and Mason Lister can throw it around a little bit, so they have a good group of guys there with a big offensive line and some nice skill position players,” Gorman said.
Both coaches agreed that the 2020 Rusty Rail game will come down to the line of scrimmage.
“Just controlling the line of scrimmage,” said Gorman on the key to the game for Sayre. “I think that’s personally our strong point coming back on both sides of the ball, so I think if we can control the line that definitely helps. It keeps your quarterback clean. It keeps your running back from getting hit in the backfield and then (on defense) it keeps your linebackers clean and helps control that big offensive line.”
“Line of scrimmage is going to be huge and then the little things,” added Young.
Young is expecting to see the same things out of the Redskins that made them successful last year.
“They’re pretty similar to last year. They lost some really good football players, you know, but they are doing the same things. They are going to try and spread the field and throw on you, and then they’re going to try and spread the field and run on you,” Young said.
Young said the Wildcats need to focus on the little things to win this game.
“Just taking care of the little things — mistakes, not getting behind the chains, taking care of business defensively, tackling and not giving up big plays,” Young said.
No matter who wins tonight’s game, Young said it was important for the players to get a chance to compete.
“Unfortunately, we’re not going to get (all the fans) there, but at the same time it’s good for the community. It’s going to be on the radio. It’s going to be live streamed (on the Morning Times website and Facebook page). The kids need this,” Young said.