The Altoona football team had a season to remember this fall, setting numerous offensive records with their new spread offense, while going 5-5 and earning a playoff berth for the fifth time in school history. The Railroaders tied for third place in the Cloverbelt Conference, just one year removed from a 2-7 season in which they tied for last.
“I’m not surprised at how we played and how we finished,” said Altoona coach Gary Pszeniczny, whose team won four of its last five regular season games before a playoff loss at Baldwin-Woodville. “You obviously have to have some luck and have your key players stay injury-free so you’re able to go into October and have most of your starters still playing.”
That was a key difference from a year ago, when the Railroaders were forced to shuffle their lineup numerous times due to injuries. This year, the team saw quarterback Brodie Johnson, running back Ben Devine, and receivers Josh Kriesel, Zach Honadel, and Jonathan Gillespie, as well as much of the line and defense, play in all 10 games. That continuity helped the Railroaders put together one of the most prolific offensive seasons in team history.
“Going into the season, we felt our team was geared to have the ability to score points,” said Pszeniczny. “We had a handful of guys that at any point on the field could score.”
They did exactly that, scoring 221 points on the season, one short of the school’s all-time record set in 2001. Johnson threw a school-record 18 touchdown passes to become the career leader in that statistic, with Kriesel catching eight of them to finish second in team annals. Johnson also became the school’s leader in completion percentage for a season and for a career, surpassing Rick Dahl and Dustin Friedrich, respectively, and finished only 18 yards short of Friedrich’s record for career passing yardage. On the ground, Devine became the 12th career 1,000-yard rusher in team history. Jordan Dewitz finished as the school’s second all-time leading kicker.
“We dabbled with the spread for two years prior to this, so it wasn’t the first time the players were exposed to it, but it was a matter of saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do’, and not compromise,” said Pszeniczny of the new offensive system.
“I don’t think that it’s anything we’re going to change in the near future,” he added. “The players have fun, the coaches have fun coaching it, and I think the fans have fun watching it. It’s contemporary football, using Altoona kids to the best of their ability.”
The season marked the end of the careers of 14 Altoona players: Logan Harryman, Devine, Brodie Johnson, Skyler Harmon, Gillespie, Dewitz, Michael Seebruck, Kevin Johnson, Dakota Thompson, Shawn Blake, Gunner Whitcome, Josh Hobart, Garrett Heiman, and Kriesel.
“The seniors have been a group that has persevered,” said Pszeniczny. “Along the way, there have been teammates not stay with it, but these 14 did. I think they were exceptional leaders and just well-rounded. We’ll definitely miss (them). You always have that saying that you never replace them; you just try to move on.”
“A lot of (the success) was because we have so many unselfish players,” he added, pointing out that Blake, Thompson, and Dewitz made position changes this year. “People were just willing to share the wealth for the betterment of the team, and I think that’s what made this year probably as special as anything else.”
Despite those key losses, Pszeniczny thinks this year’s success has positioned the team well for the future.
“We’re very optimistic,” he said. “I think that there’s been some good momentum that we’ve been able to generate. I think we’re really on the cusp of being pretty special in the next two or three years, and I think that’s where this group of seniors can look back and say, ‘We were pretty instrumental in making that happen.’”
“Making the playoffs was special, but at some point we have to set the bar higher and advance in the playoffs,” he added. “We’d like to be believe we’re capable of making the playoffs year-in and year-out, and we’d like to have some home playoff games at Altoona.”
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