AVELLA - The last time the Avella High School Eagles football team went 5-0, Ryan Cecchini was still too young to suit up for the high school squad.
Eighteen difficult years stretch between that last winning season and this season - one in which, against all odds and defying all expectations, the Eagles are once again flying high.
Now, Cecchini is the Eagles' head coach, and, when he looks up from the sidelines, the bleachers are no longer empty - the football team is now the hottest ticket in town.
UNDEFEATED — The Avella High School Eagles celebrate after a win. The team is 5-0 this season, after having gone 0-9 last season. The team has struggled in recent years, not having a winning season since 1994, and having not gone to the playoffs since 1976. With a win against Frazier High School Friday, the Eagles would have a virtual lock on their first playoff appearance in more than 30 years.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "As a coach, I'm really happy for the kids. They get excited for football now. A lot of kids have told me they want to come out for the team next year."
Cecchini, who played for the Eagles himself before going on to college ball at Hiram College, said watching Avella's slide into mediocrity was painful.
"It was hard to watch," he said. "I went through the Avella system. I thought it could do better, and I wanted better for the kids, for them to have pride in their school. I couldn't help but wonder 'why is this happening?'"
During the program's darkest hour, the team was feted just for taking the field - during the 2008 season, the team received a flurry of media attention when cheerleading captain Anastasia Barr joined so the team could field the bare minimum of players to avoid WPIAL sanctions and the possible loss of the 2009 season. They lost every game that year, but won the respect of their opponents. The following year, they won two games, having the most successful season of the decade, but only the faithful - players' parents and relatives - were watching and the team played in obscurity.
In 2010, Cecchini became an assistant coach with the junior high team, helping coach the team Avella co-ops with neighboring Burgettstown. However, Cecchini said he hopes success at the high school level will raise enough interest so Avella can soon field its own junior team.
Last year, the head coaching job at the high school opened up, and Cecchini never looked back.
"It is my dream job," Cecchini said. "I never wanted to be anywhere else. This is the place I want to be."
The Eagles went 0-9 last year, and this season's reversal of fortunes may be the biggest surprise in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League. That is, to anyone but Cecchini.
"We have a lot of young kids," he said. "The last five games (of the 2011 season), things were starting to come together."
But for some bad breaks, the Eagles would have had a win last year, Cecchini maintained.
"We had one senior and two juniors last year," said Cecchini. "We had nine starters coming back, and that experience, combined with the change of conference, is part of it."
It's still a long way from one win to undefeated halfway through the season, but Cecchini believed in his players and set a lofty goal at the beginning of the season for a team that had a record of 5-75 since 2003: the playoffs.
"It's a really good feeling," said Cecchini. "The kids know everyone is excited. They know they can compete. Everyone is cheering for them, and that gives them even more motivation to compete."
After languishing in the Black Hills Conference, Avella has been throwing its weight around in the Tri-County South Conference, outscoring its opponents 217-60, but the Frazier Commodores (3-2) stand between the Eagles and a possible playoff spot.
"Our goal at the beginning was to make the playoffs, and we're not taking it for granted," said Cecchini. "We are taking it one week at a time. If we win against Frazier, it would be hard for us to miss the playoffs."
Frazier's offense is dangerous, and Avella will have to keep an eye on its receivers and running backs, Cecchini said.
"This is the biggest game in Avella since 1994," he said. "They have a great offense."
If the Eagles win, sophomore quarterback Santino Paris and junior running back Jake Temple likely will have a hand in it.
"(Paris) has worked hard, and he's coming into his own," said Cecchini. "He's looked really good these last few games. He's getting better and better."
This year, Avella may have many of the same starters, but they are playing on a whole new team, Paris said.
"It's great," he said. "We're much closer and we're working as a team. We're working harder, practicing harder."
Paris, who switched from wide receiver to quarterback, credited coaches Gary Rankin and Zack Zebrasky for his success.
"We have a new coaching staff, we have more coaches," he said. "Instead of three, we have five or six, and they all help us. We have specialty coaches, and (Rankin and Zebrasky) have been a big help to me."
Paris said he felt some pressure as a younger quarterback, but his focus is on working with his team.
"I played quarterback in seventh and eighth grade, but at the high school level, it's a big change," he said. "I have to focus on what I'm doing and just do what I know how to do."
Paris' father, Alex Paris, and his uncle, Domenic Frank, were members of the last Avella team to reach the playoffs, and the team's current success has them as excited as anyone in town.
"There's a ton of excitement, not just in the school, but in the community," said Paris. "The whole area is coming, so many more people are coming, and they're much more excited. It boosts morale, that they are coming to watch us, that they support us and believe in us. We want to compete and win games for them."
Right now, Paris is preparing for Friday's game against Frazier.
"They have great passing," he said. "We have to shut down their passing."
Temple leads the team in touchdowns, scoring seven on the rush and two on kick returns, according to Cecchini.
"We're ready for games," said Temple, adding that the team is practicing harder than ever before. "Everyone wants to be at practice."
The support of the community has been a boost for the team, he said.
"Everyone's telling us good luck, people we don't even know," said Temple. "It really helps us. We want to play so that they will come back and keep coming back. Now, when they come, they expect to see us win."
After more than 30 years, Avella is within reach of a playoff spot, having last been to the playoffs in 1976.
"It's a shock," Temple said. "Everyone wants to go to the games now. The kids at school are pumped for the game. As a leader on the team, it helps me keep myself hyped up and to hype up the team. We're hyped up and ready."
Temple's older brother also played for Avella, until a wrestling injury sidelined him, and his extended family has sat through plenty of losses.
"My family loves it," he said. "They came, and they asked some friends to come, and they asked their friends, and now the bleachers are packed. Everyone's excited to see that Avella is back on track."
Temple also is focused on the game against Frazier.
"We have to keep the quarterback scrambling around in the backfield," he said.
He predicted that Avella's defensive line will be busy on the pass rush.
"Winning cures all," said Cecchini. "We'll have a lot more kids next year."
Avella plays its homecoming game against Frazier at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $5 for adults and $2 for students.