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Gorman: Are mergers the future of Western Pa. football?

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Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Clairton's Aaron Mathews pressures Berlin Brothersvalley's Brentson Harding during the PIAA Class A quarterfinals Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, at Elizabeth Forward High School. Clairton won 52-24.

Central Valley and Conneaut Area, two schools that didn’t exist a half-dozen years ago, met in a PIAA Class AAA quarterfinal game Friday night.

You can’t help but wonder if this is the future of Western Pennsylvania football, the emergence of mergers as powerhouse programs.

And, if so, what that means for the most dominant team in recent WPIAL history.

Clairton has won six WPIAL Class A championships in seven years and seven in nine, yet no one knows how much longer the distressed school district can stay open.

“It’s inevitable that it’s coming,” said Bears coach Wayne Wade, a 1989 Clairton alum. “There’s nothing you can do about it. In the long run, it will probably be better off for the district.

“It will come to that one day. The Clairton people probably won’t be receptive to it because they will lose some of the pride of the city and tradition, but you have to get used to the change and a new name.”

That’s what happened five years ago at Central Valley, a merger of Center and Monaca.

Two Beaver County school districts became one, moving up to uncharted territory in the Class AAA Parkway Conference. Going to a high school in Center Township was an adjustment for Monaca kids.

“Listen, it was a concern for everybody,” said Central Valley coach Mark Lyons, a 1983 Monaca graduate. “They don’t want to give up the school name, the mascot or the colors. When your father and uncles played there, you give up their tradition.

“But you’ve got to look at the big picture. With the declining enrollment, people realized it was the best for both communities. Everything you do is the first.”

With more WPIAL football schools in Class A (34) and AA (38) than AAA (26) and Quad A (24) and growing suburban districts such as fellow PIAA quarterfinalists Pine-Richland and South Fayette, we should expect to see more mergers in the near future.

If athletics are central to a community, football is its high school’s heartbeat.

As Clairton has shown, the pulse of a city can ebb and flow with the successes and sorrows of its high school football team.

Lyons said it requires an “aggressive progression” — the willingness of people to work together with a vision to move forward — to make a merger work.

The challenge of making a merger work in football, Lyons said, is that you have two starters for every position.

Central Valley winning the WPIAL Class AAA title in its inaugural year helped the transition tremendously.

“It definitely helped the whole high school when we won the championship that first year,” said Central Valley senior receiver B.J. Powell, who grew up in Center but moved to Monaca. “It brought us all together. It helped in that situation and was a great influence on us younger kids to reach the same goal.

“Once we merged, there wasn’t a sense that we lost our hometown. We just came together. It definitely helped us. If it would’ve stayed Center and Monaca, it wouldn’t have been as good for us players. Some of us wouldn’t be in the situation we are now.”

That’s what concerns Wade. The Bears attracted national attention with a state-record 66-game winning streak and broke the state scoring record Friday night in a 52-24 PIAA victory over Berlin Brothersvalley.

If Clairton is to go the way of Monaca, the Bears are leaving a remarkable legacy.

At Clairton, anything short of going 16-0 and winning WPIAL and PIAA titles every season is viewed as a disappointing season. Would those goals change if Clairton merged with neighboring Elizabeth Forward, South Allegheny or Thomas Jefferson?

“I don’t think we’re thinking that far. We want to leave a mark with Clairton,” Wade said. “We’ve had a lot of success and broken records, and we want to continue to do that.

“We’re not even thinking about (closing). We’re still looking at it as Clairton High School and how important the high school is to the community. … For us at Clairton, we are doing something special, and you’d hate to see that come to an end.”

For the future of Western Pennsylvania football, enjoy teams like Clairton in the present before they become a thing of the past.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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