Undermanned but undeterred: Geibel Catholic High School football fights on with just 16 players

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Two weeks ago, Geibel Catholic's football team couldn't put the numbers on the scoreboard. They lost to Frazier High School, 81-0.

Last week, Geibel couldn't put the numbers on the field. The Gators, with a few players injured from the Frazier game and one player on vacation, forfeited to Bethlehem-Center, marking the third Geibel forfeit due to a player shortage in two years.

It's unlikely, with a roster of just 16 players, that the numbers will be in Geibel's favor anytime soon.

Still, they practice each day, regardless of what the next Friday night will bring.

"They don't understand quit," said Ed Plisko, vice president of the school booster's club and father of two players.

And they love football, said Don Favero, the school's principal.

"I admire their drive and determination, and I know it's an uphill battle," he said.

Geibel High School, located in Connellsville, Fayette County, has 170 students enrolled in grades 7 through 12 and competes in the WPIAL's lowest level, Class A. Founded 50 years ago, the school offers college-level classes and maintains a strong devotion to its Catholic mission. This summer, in addition to participating in a football camp, the players also did a service project.

"We're trying to turn out young people who become leaders in their churches and communities," Mr. Favero said.

The school's message to their students, he said, is to dream big.

"If you are right with the Lord, anything is possible," he said.

So when 16 students and their parents came to him, saying they wanted to play football, even though last year's season had included no on-field wins and two forfeits, Mr. Favero decided they would try to make it work.

It is Geibel's decision to make, said Tim O'Malley, executive director of the WPIAL, adding that the school must factor in its commitment to the other teams on its schedule and to the safety of the players.

"They need to take the necesssary steps and action to make sure that the health and welfare of those kids is ultimately protected," he said.

Attempting to make a Geibel football team work, however, has made for somewhat unusual -- and creative --practices. On Tuesday afternoon, 14 of Geibel's 16 players gathered for practice. Two were absent -- one on a family trip and the other one working for his family's business. The Geibel girls soccer team practices on the school's main field, and the football team on the stretch of grass beside it.

On this particular day, Coach Pete Nace planned to work on defense. An assistant coach for a handful of years, Mr. Nace is in his first year as head coach. He had a son who graduated from Geibel last year and who is helping with the team this year. Another son, Jacob, is a sophomore and plays on the team.

Of his 16 players, nine never played football prior to this season, so much of his coaching is spent not just improving skills, but teaching the game.

And without enough players to practice 11 on 11, he has to improvise. On Tuesday, he explained a defensive scheme and put 11 players on one side of the ball.

Then, turning his baseball cap backwards, Mr. Nace, three assistant coaches and the remaining three Geibel players formed a seven-man offense. He placed a tackling dummy on the ground to represent another offensive player.

Again and again, they ran through plays.

"The kids all work hard. They play tough," Mr. Nace said.

Out of necessity, they also play a lot.

Brent Plisko, a 17-year-old junior, plays quarterback or fullback on offense and linebacker or safety on defense. Mario Ruggieri, a 16-year-old junior who joined the team last year because a coach pulled him aside in the hallway and told him they needed players, plays center or guard on offense. On defense, he plays nose tackle, tackle or linebacker.

"Everyone on the team can fill more than one job," Mario said.

That versatility, however, did not translate into a win when they played Frazier.

The game was over in the first half, when the Frazier scored 81 points and Geibel scored none at all. The second half was shortened, mercifully, to two, one-minute quarters.

"It's tougher on me as a parent to sit there," said Mr. Plisko. Also hard to hear was criticism directed at the team for trying to play when the numbers were stacked so firmly against them.

Mr. Nace heard the criticism, and his players did, too.

"I told them, 'Hey, you know, let's not worry about it. Let's move on,'" Mr. Nace said.

They are moving on, Mr. Favero said. But he said the school takes seriously its obligations to the teams on its schedule; if they cannot produce enough players to field a team each week, they will consider moving to a junior varsity level or competing as an independent school.

For now, they are being careful to prevent injury, said Geibel athletic director Shawn Holup.

His players are learning "without a doubt, perserverance," Mr. Nace said.

And he thinks it is a lesson that will stay with them, long after the season is over and high school is complete.

"Something will pop up, and they'll just deal with it, just like they are dealing with it now," he said.

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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