NEW CASTLE —
Some major change is in store for Lawrence County football teams.
Based off the approaching new PIAA enrollment cycle, which runs every two academic years and kicks in this fall, the WPIAL released its revamped conference alignment yesterday.
Laurel is the only county team directly affected from the WPIAL moves. Its PIAA enrollment figures bump it up to Class AA. The Spartans re-join the Midwestern Athletic Conference with Mohawk and Ellwood City Lincoln.
Neshannock, Union and Shenango remain in the Class A Big Seven Conference and New Castle stays put in the Class AAA Parkway Conference.
In District 10, Wilmington drops to Class A and joins Region 1.
SPARTANS GO UP
Laurel is no stranger to the MAC. The Spartans have bounced back and forth between Class A and AA the past few years. They were in the MAC as recently as 2011.
“From what I understand of the numbers, in a couple years, we will be back down, too,” Laurel coach Pat Cuba said. “It is what it is. We’ll approach it just like we did the past season. We play the hand we’re dealt. I don’t have a problem with it. Our kids have played these teams before and they know what they’re up against.”
Laurel will face local squads Mohawk and Ellwood City as well as Aliquippa, Beaver, Beaver Falls, Freedom, New Brighton and Summit Academy, which is new to the conference as well. Those teams pose new challenges for the Spartans.
“We play some good programs. We did in the Big Seven, too. It’s definitely prepared us to play in the MAC,” Cuba said. “The only hard part is we have to go out and start all over again. We have to start from scratch again. It is what it is. We all have to deal with it.”
Laurel, in its first year under Cuba, finished third in the Big Seven at 6-2. The Spartans (7-3 overall) dropped a 34-16 decision to Avonworth in a WPIAL first-round playoff game.
BIG SEVEN SHUFFLE
The Big Seven saw some turnover as Sto-Rox, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Laurel moved out and Riverside and Vincentian Academy came into the conference.
Those changes left Neshannock, Shenango and Union in the conference along with holdovers Rochester, South Side Beaver and Western Beaver and the two new foes.
The Vikings, who won the last two Big Seven championships, were a surprise departure — even to themselves. Reportedly, a clerical error in the enrollment figures the school submitted to the PIAA pushed the program up a classification.
“Sto-Rox, I guess by clerical error, they are gone. Things happen,” Union coach Stacy Robinson said. “I like those guys from Sto-Rox, but I am not going to cry to see them go. They are a good football team. We’ll welcome in the new teams and go from there. We have to worry about ourselves first, though, before we think about any of our opponents.”
Neshannock beat Sto-Rox two years ago and the squads wound up tied for the conference crown, along with Rochester. The Vikings narrowly edged the Lancers, 34-31, this year and repeated as champs.
“It’s definitely a big loss for the Big Seven. Sto-Rox has a quality program and quality coach in Dan Bradley. Our players have mutual respect for each other and so do our coaching staffs,” Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio said. “Our teams have played two down-to-the-wire games the last two years. We’re sorry to see them go. Our kids are upset about it and we are upset about it. We have to move forward now.
“As disappointed as we are to see a rival like Laurel move out, too, we have to find new rivalries and new competition. I am sure Riverside and Vincentian will be up for the challenge and we’ll be ready to go.”
Vincentian begins its third year of football — and first in a WPIAL conference — this fall. The Royals were 4-6 last year. Meanwhile, Riverside went 1-8.
“If you’re around long enough, like me, you expect change,” Robinson said. “We’ll welcome the challenge. The league is nothing like it used to be when we had Farrell and Monaca and everyone was strong. It’ll still be quality football; there are a lot of good coaches in the league.”
One change that didn’t happen was a surprise. Defending WPIAL and PIAA Class A champ Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic moved from the Eastern Conference to the Ohio Valley Conference and not to the Big Seven.
“Word was out they were going to send North Catholic in here. I am glad they didn’t,” Robinson said.
The Trojans beat Neshannock twice last year: 21-14 in the regular season and 27-14 in the WPIAL semifinals.
“I heard some rumors they might come into the Big Seven,” Mozzocio said. “I know we’d like to play them. They have some great players down there. It’d be a great challenge for our kids.”
CLASS AAA CHANGES
Realignment did not affect the Red Hurricane and the Parkway Conference. However, Highlands, which beat New Castle in a WPIAL first-round playoff game, dropped down to Class AA.
In addition, Class AAAA powerhouse Gateway dropped to Class AAA and was placed in the Greater Allegheny Conference with Franklin Regional, Greensburg-Salem, Hampton, Hollidaysburg, Indiana, Knoch, Mars and Yough.
Wilmington drops down to Class A for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
The Greyhounds captured WPIAL Class A championships in 1987 and ’88. They moved to District 10 in 1994 and dominated at the Class AA level. They appeared in 12 championship tilts and claimed eight trophies (1994-97 and 2006-09), including the 2008 PIAA title.
“We were always on the border; we were a small double-A school,” Wilmington coach Terry Verrelli said. “We’re just getting a lower number of students in each class. It appears we’ll be there (in Class A) for a while.”
Schools may play up in classification, but can’t play below their designated classification. The ’Hounds had success playing up before when the team won District 10, Class AAA titles in 2000 and ’01 even though it had a Double-A enrollment. However, the program chose to compete at its designated classification for the next two years, at least.
“We just decided to stay where we were put,” Verrelli said. “Sure, it’s possible that could change in the future.”
Wilmington and Reynolds move from Region 3 to Region 1 with Farrell, Lakeview, Mercer, Sharpsville and West Middlesex. The ’Hounds beat Reynolds (20-7), Sharpsville (20-0) and West Middlesex (28-10) last fall.
“The Single-A schools there have been very competitive. We expect it to be that way this year, too,” Verrelli said. “It will be a learning process, but we happened to play Sharpsville and West Middlesex out of region play, so it’ll be less of a learning situation than it could have been. We’re back to playing Mercer and Lakeview. We’ll have to be ready.”
NEW CASTLE —
Some major change is in store for Lawrence County football teams.
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