A Week Zero Hero and a Week 1 One to Watch

South Fayette QB Drew Saxton

How can you tell high school football is back in western Pennsylvania? If there isn’t stinking heat, pouring rain or some uncomfortable combination of the two on that first Friday night, it doesn’t count.

Cramping be damned, a new season of WPIAL pigskin kicked off this weekend. Having covered it over the past decade, the start of a new season still excites and fascinates me a great deal. I’m particularly intrigued by this season because of the offseason winds of change that blew throughout the PIAA.

Saturday’s action notwithstanding, the so-called “Week Zero” matchup that jumped out at me the most was Central Valley (3A) at South Fayette (4A). It was a meeting of two of the most well-peopled and well-coached programs in recent memory, and two recent WPIAL champions, to wit. It was also highly indicative of this new era in WPIAL football; one team has moved up to one of the higher, newly crafted classifications, while the other has essentially stayed put, but still finds itself in a new conference.

By the way, what’s up with that “Week Zero” thing, anyway? Did the WPIAL fax machines catch a Y2K bug? It’s confusing and annoying. You don’t pour two glasses of water and refer to the first one as “zero glasses of water,” but I digress.

Ultimately, it was a game that lived up to expectations and, coincidentally, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s featured game as well. Check out the highlights from Post-Gazette Varsity Xtra:

There’s an adage that you don’t replace a legend, you replace the man who replaces the legend. Drew Saxton may not have achieved legendary status just yet, but he seems to be inching closer with every South Fayette victory.

Despite having to follow Brett Brumbaugh, who rewrote the district and state record books, Saxton made his own attack on those books last year, and the Lions quarterback got the new season off to a great start with his startling precision:

Central Valley is going to be okay. It always has been under Mark Lyons. But that’s a tough card to draw for the opener.

Shifting my attention elsewhere in the new Beaver Valley Conference, the Week “1” (or, as the case may be, Week 2) game that’s on my radar, and probably most people’s radars, is Beaver Falls at Aliquippa. Beaver Falls features Donovan Jeter, a Pitt target who is widely believed to be one of the nation’s best defensive linemen. Aliquippa, as you may have heard, has rallied around its ailing ex-running back DiMantae Bronaugh. In case you hadn’t heard, the Quips got a great effort from new tailback Avante McKenzie in a season-opening win at New Castle.

South Fayette hasn’t lost a regular season game in forever, but neither has Aliquippa.

The last team to beat them in the regular season: the 2009 Tigers.

One rivalry that doesn’t get talked about as much is Derry-Latrobe, mainly because neither place has been an easy one to win. But those who know me know I have a soft spot for teams and individuals that don’t normally get much attention. Count me among those who have covered Derry and seen that team take its lumps, so it is with great pleasure this week that I toot the horn of Tyler Balega, who ran for 203 yards and found the end zone three times–four, if you count a two-point conversion–in the Trojans’ 28-20 win over the Wildcats.

In the meantime, I have mixed feelings about the expansion of high school football from four classifications to six. I like the general idea of congruity, and that more teams will play an even number of games going forward–although some chose not to–and an even number of home and away games. If you only had four regular season home games last year, that extra little economic boost is nice, as is the extra chance to play in front of friends and family, so the more scheduling symmetry, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

I like that expansion has forced the WPIAL to filter its playoff system, at least in the higher classifications. There is a lot to be said for the experience of participating in a postseason event in any scholastic sport, but are they really doing any favors for losing teams that are annually forced to drive all over Creation just to get their butts kicked by actual contenders?

I like that the season starts sooner than usual–much sooner, in fact, according to the Post-Gazette‘s Mike White:

 

While this may tie the known record, it does not break it, and I ought to know a thing or two about that.

My very first high school football broadcast took place eleven years ago to the day (feels like a hundred eleven some days), with Lou Rood, the former Belle Vernon head coach and, first impressions being what they are, a truly nice human, on play-by-play. A Rochester team that featured future Nittany Lion and Steeler Derek Moye was victorious at New Brighton, 35-20.

(Preemptive strike: don’t bother looking for the archive if you’re feeling nostalgic. However, you can still buy it on CD–at your own peril, I’m sure.)

Anyway, Mike is right about one other thing: we’ve got to work on that ending. I don’t like the idea that pretty much every football player good enough to make it to the middle of December will be playing hurt (any who aren’t are lying) and perhaps dangerously so.

Anticlimactic though those games might feel compared to the WPIAL championships at Heinz Field, I don’t like the fact that fewer kids will have the chance to play there. No, I don’t want them playing on a ragged natural surface. I also don’t want it to be so damn hot out. In other words, those kids are coached not to worry about what they can’t control. Never mind the field conditions; I always thought the bigger stage was a nice reward for those who earned championship berths. The playoffs themselves are also now a catch-22; weeding out under-qualified teams also means fewer good ones will qualify.

I don’t like that realignment has killed natural rivalries. Some have been preserved and some interesting new ones may be created, but the idea of seeing teams like Aliquippa and Clairton on the same turf (at last!) is not enough of a consolation prize. It is a travesty for a North Hills alumnus to wake up one day and not see North Allegheny on the schedule anymore, recent results aside. Furthermore, I don’t like that certain teams have to travel farther than they’re used to in order to play these revamped conference schedules, and I’m very interested to see what effect, if any, gas prices and other economic factors will have on the new setup in the future.

I like the idea of growing the game. That’s why I want to do this blog. That’s why I always liked covering high school sports in general. For example, my Friday night commute past Frank Letteri Stadium just got harder, and that’s a good problem to have, as the P-G‘s Brian Batko reported. I don’t like the idea that expanding classes might make other programs that have trouble competing easier to cut this time around.

The WPIAL just demonstrated we have enough trouble playing like other states on the field without playing like them on paper, although Pine-Richland and star quarterback Phil Jurkovec does deserve props for giving St. Edwards (Ohio) a game in front of a national TV audience:

 

High school football will always be a big deal around these parts. But is it big enough for a six-class format to be sustainable?

Perhaps the best way to answer that question is, ask it again in a couple years.

Featured image courtesy of South Fayette Sports via Sidney Davis/Tribune-Review.

Author: Matt Popchock

Follow Popchock on Twitter @PopchockSays or contact him at mpopchock@verizon.net.

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