The last time Central Valley had lost a football game, none of us knew what COVID-19 was.
Then on Oct. 28, Aliquippa beat the Warriors, 35-24.
“It was definitely hard losing that game,” senior Jackson Tonya said. “It was a good reset for the team, to get humbled like that. It allowed us to take a step back and assess everything we were doing and improve where we needed to.”
Central Valley coach Mark Lyons used the opportunity to find ways to make a storied program even better.
“I think it might have allowed our guys to relax just a bit,” Lyons said. “We were trying to hold on as long as we could to a winning streak that got to 36 games. … We just tidied up some things. We probably tweaked some things that allowed us to be in a better position. It is very easy when you are winning 36 games in a row to ignore some of your deficiencies.
“Sometimes a loss can get you refocused not only as a football player but as a coaching staff as well. I think that game did exactly that. A true testament is the way we responded. I thought we responded tremendously.”
In that next game, Central Valley bested a tough Laurel Highlands team, 36-7.
The Warriors’ previous loss came at the hands of Wyoming Area on Dec. 7, 2019.
A defensive leader on that 2019 squad was Sean FitzSimmons, who now plays for Pitt.
“He was a big playmaker,” Tonya said. “Following behind him for three years, he made me the player I am today. Stepping out of his shadow a little bit has been a success.
“It was every day in practice. He would teach me how to step better, hand placement, footwork, different moves to use. He made me 100 times better than I was freshman year.”
Those moments in practice paid off for Tonya. Not only does he take charge of the offensive line as the center, but he stars on the defensive side of the ball as well. He leads the team with 94 total tackles and 11 sacks, and he added in an interception in Week 9 against West Allegheny.
“He prepares very well,” Lyons said. “You are not going to find another young man that comes to work every day and prepares and understands how he fits in each defensive scheme we run.”
Tonya has great size at 6 feet 2, and he has all of the physical tools to play on Saturdays next year.
“You’re going to get Jackson’s best every day. That is in practice, lifting sessions, film sessions, and that shows on the game film on Friday nights,” Lyons said. “His consistent play is because he prepares that way. It’s not Jackson just turning on a switch on Friday; that switch always stays on. I think he has a great grasp of the game. He understands the concepts of what teams want to do and deciphering it, and then he has the skillset to make plays.”
The Warriors (10-1) face Thomas Jefferson (8-3) at 7 p.m. Friday at North Allegheny in the WPIAL Class 4A semifinals.
“TJ is TJ,” Lyons said. “They are going to try to establish the line of scrimmage. They are going to want to knock you off the ball. That is what they do and they do it very well. Obviously, when they start controlling that and you start sticking your nose down in the run game, boom — it is play-action over the top with [receiver Sean] Sullivan.”
For the team with four WPIAL titles and back-to-back PIAA titles in 2020 and 2021, there is some familiarity with games like this. The players know what is needed to win at this stage in the year.
“They are big and they are a good team,” Tonya said of the Jaguars. “It is going to be a good week. We have been preparing a lot. We look at their keys, their tendencies and their formations, too. Personnel-wise, we are looking at it. We want to try to find any mismatch we can so that we can take advantage of it.”
The Central Valley defense has had to grow and adapt throughout the year. Senior Keegan Adamson and sophomore T. Mason Dixon both sustained season-ending injuries leaving the linebacker position very thin.
“It is kind of a deal where Matt Gerovac and I took on a bigger role,” Tonya said. “We have to contain the outside while our freshmen wall off the inside.”
Those moments with FitzSimmons prepared Tonya for this role. He has had his best season this year, and if the Warriors are going to get back to the state title game, they will need him to continue his stellar play on both sides of the ball.
For now, though, the entire program is focused on Thomas Jefferson.
“You lean on your leadership,” Lyons said. “Our senior group has been in this position the last three years. It is not new territory. … If TJ plays a great football game and beats us, our hats off to them. I can tell you this, our guys will not waste that day. You are going to get our best, only because of our leadership and our ability to understand the moment.”
Saul works in sports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.