Turnaround at Avella something to savor

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When Ryan Cecchini returned to his alma mater, Avella High School, he took over a football program in shambles with no quick remedies readily available.

A year later, when Mark Kania took over as the school's athletic director, the picture remained the same -- a perpetual loser with few signs of hope.

Over the past month, however, Avella has quickly rewritten the program's story and changed perceptions around the WPIAL.

For the first time in decades, the previously hapless Eagles are, at last, winners.

With a 59-6 win against Geibel Catholic last Saturday, Avella is 5-0 more than halfway through the season, a turnaround that has become one of the major stories in the WPIAL.

"We have some different mentalities, we have excited personnel, people who are really catching the athletes this year and keeping them in good spirits," Kania said.

"Of course, winning always helps."

Entering the season, the Eagles were as accustomed to winning games as the Washington Generals were to beating the Harlem Globetrotters, but this season has been marked by a full-fledged overhaul of everything that previously defined a moribund program.

An Eagles offense that scored 56 points last season is coming within two touchdowns of that figure ... each week! It is averaging 43.4 points per game and surpassed its 2011 scoring total in its first game this year.

Meanwhile, the defense has given up 12 points per game after allowing opponents an average of 42.6 points per game last season. Perhaps most impressively, with its five wins, Avella already has matched its win total from the previous nine seasons combined, a span going from 2003-11.

The team's recent success is all the more staggering considering the program's history of futility.

Before this season, Avella had not won more than two games in any season since '03, a span over which the Eagles accumulated a nine-year record of 5-77. With the win last week, Avella secured a winning regular-season record, something it had not accomplished since '94.

Part of the problem boiled down to a simple numbers game. Avella, located 15 miles northwest of Washington, is a small town surrounded by farming and mining areas. The school has an enrollment of about 200 students, something which routinely produces undermanned football rosters. As recently as '09, Avella had only 19 players on its roster -- and, in reality, the number was lower once injuries took their toll -- and were consistently at a competitive disadvantage.

"It was really down, there's no doubt about it," Cecchini said of the state of the program when he arrived there last year.

"There wasn't a lot of confidence in the kids. They had been beaten down for so many years that they had to try to restore what had once been.

"In the 1960s and '70s, it had been a very good program, but it deteriorated so far."

For Kania, the situation was equally bleak.

"The mentality of football was just down, nothing, it wasn't good," he said.

"The mentality was, 'Let's go watch Avella get the pants beat off them every Friday night,' because before now, they haven't had a real winning season in decades.

"It was pretty normal to have someone walk up the hallway and say, 'How many points is Avella going to get beat by this Friday night?' I hated that."

Cecchini's first year at Avella offered no signs of improvement in the team's win-loss record -- the Eagles went 0-9 in 2011 -- but, with a new coach and athletic director in place, wholesale change was taking place.

Perhaps, the biggest and most important of these changes happened away from the field. After years of work, Avella was able to switch conferences, going from the Black Hills, likely the toughest conference top to bottom in WPIAL Class A, to the less-competitive Tri-County South.

The move offered the Eagles a chance to square off against teams with similarly small rosters and limited resources, something which Cecchini said "definitely helps us."

Cecchini and Avella also decided to revamp the team's coaching staff this year, adding two new assistants and a handful of committed volunteers after the Eagles went through last year with just three coaches total.

Additionally, Cecchini added summer running and weight-lifting programs, debunking the existing notion when he arrived that football was a seasonal sport.

"In reality, you have to work at it year-round to be successful," Cecchini said.

Experience, too, has played a key role for the Eagles, who returned nine starters on each side of the ball heading into this season, including top players such as quarterback Santino Paris and wide receiver Zach Thompson.

With all the changes that have taken place, the mood surrounding the Avella football program has turned decidedly more optimistic.

While both Cecchini and Kania acknowledged numbers will always be a problem -- the Eagles have 22 players on their roster this season -- they both hope to see playoff appearancescome with regularity in the future.

At least for now, the Avella football team and those associated with it are happy to be able to once again look forward to Friday nights.

"Morale is up -- everybody wants to support the team," Kania said. "It's really a 180-[degree turnaround], to be honest with you.

"I can give a lot of that credit to the student-athletes -- they're the ones going out, putting out the effort every week and beating teams every week thus far this year.

"They've done wonders for this community."

The road to 5-0

The Avella Eagles won their first five games this season. Here are those results

Opponent: Result

Vincentian Academy: 65-6

West Greene: 27-13

Mapletown: 40-14

Jefferson-Morgan: 26-21

Geibel Catholic: 59-6

hsfootball

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com


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