To the surprise of many, Kittanning is tied atop the Class AA Allegheny Conference standings, a lofty position through the season's first five games for a team that finished 1-8 two years ago. The team tied with the Wildcats with an identical 5-0 record -- Shady Side Academy -- is less of a shock, but that does not mean that the Indians are not having a standout season themselves. Their unblemished record more than halfway through the regular season is their best start since 2008. "We have a lot of guys who just do their jobs," coach Dave Havern said. "I like their chemistry, I like their work ethic."
DOMINANT ON DEFENSE
When looking for a key to the Indians' success, one need not look further than the defense. Thus far, Shady Side Academy is limiting opponents to 4.4 points per game, the best mark of any team in Class AA and the fourth-best among the 124 teams in the WPIAL. Three of the Indians' games have been shutouts and one of the three touchdowns they've given up this season came on special teams, not against the defense. As well as the defense has played this season, its success has been emblematic of a program that routinely doesn't allow opposing teams to score. Since 2005, Shady Side Academy has not allowed more than 17.2 points per game in a season. Havern said associate head coach Dave Szlachetka deserves a large share of the credit, noting that "he's the best around."
In some ways, Shady Side Academy running back Dennis Briggs doesn't completely stand out among the rest of his teammates -- after all, he is the second-leading rusher on the team behind Jarred Brevard -- but as far as the Indians' next-level prospects go, it's hard to find someone better on the team. Briggs, a senior running back/inside linebacker, is a three-star prospect according to 247 Sports and has committed to play at Pitt. Havern noted that Briggs' stats aren't eye-popping like those of other top prospects because he's largely a blocking back in their offense and that there should be no question about his ability to succeed in college. "He's a stud," he said. "He just looks like a football player."
A FINANCIAL CHALLENGE
While a large majority of schools in the WPIAL are public schools, Shady Side Academy is a private institution that comes with a sizable price tag -- $27,875 for tuition for grades 9-12, roughly $11,000 more than the tuition for an in-state student at Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences. The costs associated with attending Shady Side Academy can sometimes make it difficult to bring in players, according to Havern, meaning that as a coach, it's often about bringing in the right kind of player. "We lose kids because of the cost, we lose kids who can't get in academically," he said. "We don't want to bring in a kid to fail. We have to be very selective with who we bring in."
MOVING ON UP
As one of the more consistent programs in Class AA, Shady Side Academy actually has another barometer of success going for it -- the number of players it has playing college football. While the national average of high school football players who go on to play college football is around 10 percent, Havern approximated that about 60 percent of Indians players end up on a college roster, be it on the Division I-A, I-AA, II or III level. More than anything, it gives his players a key to future well-being. "Football is great, but you've got to use it for what it is -- as a tool to success," he said.