Greater Allegheny teams get down to business
They should call it the Later Allegheny Conference.
The Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference — the smallest, go-for-broke division in WPIAL football — finally opens play Friday night. It will be the last WPIAL conference to begin league competition.
Including scrimmages, the six Greater Allegheny teams have gone six weeks without a conference game. Needless to say, coaches and players are getting antsy.
They want higher stakes and a reason to glance at the standings.
Valley coach Randy Walters had a simple message for his players following a film session on Monday.
“It’s a different deal, now we play for real,” Walters said.
The opening menu of local Greater Allegheny Conference games is short, but flavorful — Highlands (3-1) at Valley (2-2); Knoch (2-2) at Kittanning (1-3).
Rivalries usually are reserved for opening night, but four local districts will face off with much more than bragging rights at stake.
“I noticed (in practice) our kids were pretty serious this week,” Knoch coach Mike King said. “Even though it was pouring down rain outside, they seemed a little more focused. They understand the importance of their first conference game.”
You could say Highlands and Valley will bridge a gap when they play at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Valley Memorial Stadium. Better yet, the teams will break a tie.
Since the infamous “Battle for the Bridge” began in 1968, each school has won 11 times.
Highlands has won two of the last three games, including 40-6 last season in Harrison, a few right turns over the Tarentum Bridge.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Highlands coach Tim Karrs said. “I really respect Valley, they have really shown improvement. They have outstanding speed; I don’t know if we can compete with their speed.”
The game likely will come down to whose skill players avoid fatigue the longest. Valley is led by quarterback Mike Girardi and a host of running backs including Curtis Carion, Howard Scott and Jason Discello.
Highlands has several weapons in quarterback Zack Bonatesta, running backs Josh Shelton and Kevin Linza, and wideouts Jason Booker and Cecil Douglas.
“Every conference game is physical, real intense,” Walters said. “I told the kids, whatever you felt before last week’s game, take it and times it by five.”
The biggest difference in the Greater Allegheny is the fact that teams can’t afford early losses if they plan on winning the conference. There is hardly time to make up games teams with a five-game schedule.
“We’re all aware that you could go 0-4, win the next five and be conference champs,” Karrs said. “We know now it’s for real. What you’ve accomplished up to this point has no effect on the playoffs.”
“Sometimes, a long exhibition schedule can help you,” King said. “Last year we were in pretty good shape heading into conference play.”
This year has been different for the Knights. However, a strong defensive game last week against Greensburg Salem could be just what the Knights needed to get back to league mode.
A more balanced offense could help the Knights challenge Pine-Richland for the league crown again.
Most conference coaches would choose to play with six or seven other teams if they had the chance. A smaller conference means less league games and less room for error.
“There’s nothing you can do about (the size of the conference),” Karrs said. “You take what (the WPIAL) gives you. You can’t worry about things like that. You just have to go out and win the conference.”
“I like being in a geographical conference,” King said. “Being able to play section backyard rivals, that is what it’s all about.”
At the same time, a losing record doesn’t mean the season is over. Kittanning was 2-3 in conference (3-6 overall) when it locked up the final postseason bid in 2002. The Wildcats scared the hope out of Hopewell in the first round before losing in overtime to the eventual WPIAL and PIAA champion Vikings.
Kittanning returned only two offensive and four defensive starters from last year’s team. But the Wildcats showed flashes of the formidable run-until-you-drop ground game that has been the soul of the program and its Wing-T offense in a 21-7 win over Mt. Pleasant last week.
“It is almost the same exact situation,” said Kittanning coach Sam Panchik. “We have to replace a lot of people, especially on the offensive line.
“Inexperience is real big up front, especially for our offense.”
Kittanning has been led by running back Scott Shepard, who carried 23 times for 150 yards last week. That inexperienced line seemed to come together last week.
Kittanning plays host to the Knights Friday at Red Ullom Field.
Coaches are having trouble deciding who the team to beat is, but most will say defending conference champion Pine-Richland is the front-runner.
After the Rams (4-0), who have outscored their opponents 152-29, the field looks relatively open.
Highlands has been impressive in three wins, while Knoch, Valley and Kittanning appear to have momentum heading into league play.
“I don’t like to look ahead,” Karrs said. “Until someone beats Pine-Richland, they’re the conference champ. What people have told me, I haven’t seen them, they’re loaded.”
“It seems like teams are coming together at the right time,” King said. “I think we’re probably the most competitive conference, from top to bottom, in triple-A.”
The other conference opener features Pine-Richland at Hampton (3-1).
VND Fab 5
(Last rank / Last week / Next game)
1. Highlands (3-1) 1 Defeated Derry Area, 45-0 at Valley
2. Kiski Area (2-2) 2 Defeated Indiana, 34-21 at Latrobe
3. Knoch (2-2) 3 Defeated Greensburg Salem, 14-2 at Kittanning
4. Valley 5 (2-2) Lost to Uniontown, 34-20 vs. Highlands
5. Plum 4 (2-2) Lost to Gateway, 42-7 at Upper St. Clair
1. Ford City (3-1) 1 Defeated Burrell, 27-23 vs. Mars
2. Springdale (3-1) 2 Defeated Leechburg, 35-12 at Serra Catholic
3. Freeport (1-3) 4 Defeated Mars, 19-6 vs. North Catholic
4. Burrell (1-3) 3 Lost to Ford City, 27-23 vs. Deer Lakes
5. Apollo-Ridge (3-1) NR Defeated North Catholic, 40-15 vs. Shady Side Academy
2002 Greater Allegheny Conference standings
(Team / Record / Comment)
Pine-Richland (5-0, 9-0) — Rams return several star skill players.
Knoch (4-1, 8-1) — Knights started 4-0 in conference play last year.
Highlands (2-3 5-4) — Playoff-friendly Rams have bridge, will travel in opener.
Kittanning (2-3 3-6) — Wildcats return one starter on offensive line.
Hampton (2-3 4-5) — Talbots 10-1 two years ago; Eight starters back.
Valley (0-5 1-8) — Vikings lack depth, not short on athletes.