A quarter of a century ago, the Old Forge program reluctantly stepped out of the Big 11 Football Conference and into a world of uncertainty.
After a winless 1986 season playing schools with larger enrollments and larger rosters – as had long been the school's tradition – the decision was made to move to the Suburban Conference in search of competition against more programs of similar size.
The Blue Devils blended into their new look with a home opener against Susquehanna, arguably the program with the most-established run of success among Old Forge's new opponents.
Old Forge's move was made in search of a better chance to compete, but there was some mystery about what to expect.
In an era before Twitter, Internet radio and immediate access to information on a cell phone, word still trickled out of Old Forge on the first Friday night of the 1987 football season. The messages that made their way through old-fashioned phone lines to stadium public address announcers sent shock waves through a conference just as unsure about what to expect from its new member.
When the Blue Devils opened a 40-0 halftime lead – after scoring just 44 points in 10 games during the entire 1986 season – they shocked even their own coach, Paul Flowers.
Coach Flowers, who was never at a loss for words, came in and said, ‘boys, I don't have a 40-to-nothing halftime speech', said Armando Sallavanti, the 1987 quarterback/cornerback, who now serves as the team doctor. We joke about that all the time.
It was just surreal. After suffering so much the year before, to have a start where everything was clicking, it was a lot of fun.
All the wins were not that easy, but the Devils' success in the Suburban Conference was not contained to their sparkling debut.
Sallavanti helped organize his teammates for the school to honor the 25th anniversary of their unbeaten regular season and conference championship Friday night before the homecoming game with Carbondale. He said about 20 players out of a roster of 26 or 27 were taking part in the ceremony and planned to meet for a post-game dinner.
In hindsight, perhaps media and opponents should have seen Old Forge's success coming.
Big 11 teams had dominated the limited non-league meetings with Suburban teams in the era and Old Forge, while winless in 1986, had been extremely competitive. In a scenario that would be nearly impossible to duplicate today, the Blue Devils went 0-9-1 without ever allowing more than 21 points. They tied Lakeland and lost by more than 15 points only once.
As they moved down in competition, the Blue Devils took with them a team that would have probably climbed through the ranks of the Big 11. They put three-year starters on the field at more than half the positions.
We didn't see it coming either, Sallavanti said of the championship. I'd be lying if I said that we did. We thought we'd be good because we had a lot of nice two- and three-year starters and we did have a lot of good sophomore kids coming in.
But, the year before was just heartbreak after heartbreak. We lost five or six games in the fourth quarter. It was tough. We were looking for a new start.
They got one.
After pounding Susquehanna, 46-6, there were some challenges ahead.
Old Forge escaped with an 8-0 win over Lackawanna Trail in a downpour a week later when the Lions returned a late fumble only to have Willie Wozniak make a touchdown-saving tackle at the 20.
We almost blew it when we were running out the clock, Sallavanti said. They didn't get in the end zone.
From there on, we just had a lot of confidence.
Center/linebacker Brian Olivieri, two-way tackle Ron Zaykowski, tailback/linebacker Brian Farrell and Sallavanti were part of the group of veteran senior leaders.
Sallavanti is not the only one still around the program. Rick Notari, who keeps Old Forge football fans informed with Internet broadcasts on the www.OFBlueDevils.com, was a junior lineman on the team. Mike Schuback, coach of the school's current unbeaten team, was a two-way starter in the line as a sophomore.
They have gathered on five-year anniversaries to remember the season and pulled together again this week through Facebook, text and e-mail reminders. They remember a time when they scored 32 or more points in half of their 10 regular-season games and had their closest tests in a pair of eight-point victories over Trail.
While together Friday, they also got a chance to take a look at another unbeaten group of Blue Devils.
This is one of the most complete teams I've seen at Old Forge for size, speed and weapons, Sallavanti said. You shut one thing down, something else will come up to bite you.
I think they'll make a nice run. They're fun to watch.
Just like a team 25 years ago.