SALTSBURG — For the first time in nearly three decades, high school football matters again in Saltsburg. Just ask anyone in the community.
After going 7-3 in the regular season, the Saltsburg High School football team has the town abuzz for the first time in a generation. Not since 1991 has the community been so invested in the team.
Take the Trojans’ last regular-season game two weeks ago, on Oct. 25, for example. Much to the surprise of the players, the Saltsburg Fire Department brought a vintage firetruck affectionately known as “the Big Red Machine” to the pregame ceremony. The fire department hadn’t done that since 1991, when the Trojans went 12-2 and won the District 6 title.
“They’re trying to just bring back some of the stuff that they used to do back with that team,” junior running back Gino Bartolini said, “trying to incorporate that now, trying to bring back that same kind of community vibe. I think that’s pretty cool. Everybody was crazy about football back then, everybody from the town. There was nobody that was in their house when there was a playoff game for the Trojans, and we’re trying to bring that back.”
After earning a first-round bye in the District 6 playoffs, the Trojans start the postseason at home Saturday night against Claysburg-Kimmel. The No. 4 seed, Saltsburg is in the playoffs for the second straight year, and the town is buzzing with excitement.
“On Friday nights, when they’re winning, this town empties out,” said Ken Shaulis, who owns the NAPA auto parts store on Salt Street in the heart of town. “Everybody is going to the game, and that’s what we’ve seen this year. We stay open until six o’clock, and I’ll tell ya, on Friday nights if they’re playing, five o’clock you might as well close the door because the town is up there. And I think that is a point of pride.”
“It’s been fun, a lot of fun. We don’t get too many fun years,” said Dave Auden, a member of the Saltsburg Fire Department and a self proclaimed “crazy fan” of Saltsburg football.
Auden is among a group of devoted fans who rarely miss Saltsburg games — home or away — regardless of the Trojans’ record.
“I can probably count the games I’ve missed since I graduated on two hands,” said Auden, a member of the 1970 graduating class. “I go to all the games. ... Just a fan, a crazy fan.”
Mike Rocco graduated in 1956, and he doesn’t miss many games, either. He has been attending Saltsburg games since 1953, and he has sat through plenty of losses. But this season, Saltsburg ended a streak of 22 straight losing seasons, and few people in Saltsburg were as happy about that as Rocco.
“It was always down the hill,” said Rocco, whose grandsons, Zach and Nathan Simpson, play on the team. “Now they’re up the hill. Saturday night, we’ll see how much better they can go up.”
What’s different about this season is the outpouring of fans who didn’t always attend games during the streak of losing seasons.
“It’s been a very exciting time for the community, and it doesn’t matter where you go, people are talking about the football team,” said Linda Slapinski, whose grandson Nathan plays on the team. “It really has become a big community event, not just for people that have kids on the team, but people that are clueless as to who’s out there. I look around and I see faces that I never expected to sit out in cold weather watching a local team.”
That’s not to say Saltsburg doesn’t have school spirit, but it’s been hard to come by at the football games, until this season.
“For basketball and things like that, but not for football,” said Ashley Amorose, an employee at NAPA. “This has been a big deal this year. I can’t be more happy for the kids, honestly. ... It’s a big deal for these kids, it really is.”
Bartolini is one of at least five players whose father played on the 1991 team, and as much as the current players appreciate what that team did, they’re ready to write their own story. Bartolini’s father, Mike, was the quarterback in 1991.
“He’s obviously talked about it a lot,” Bartolini said. “That’s all we hear about growing up is how great their football team was and how they want us to live up to what they did, and now we’re here. It’s our turn to go out and finish what they started, see what we can do.”
Wide receiver David Stuller, whose father Dave was the Gazette Defensive Player of the Year in 1991, believes the Trojans’ success this season has brought the community together.
“It’s definitely a whole different story because years prior, when we’ve been losing, the community hasn’t been really in it,” he said. “But now ever since we’re starting to win, everyone is like, ‘hey, you had a good game yesterday’ or whatever. There’s so many people behind us, anywhere you go in Saltsburg, they will know who you are just because you play football here. That’s how much football means to us out here.”