The big story for the Big 33 Football Classic this year might not be who is playing, but rather who is not playing.
The 57th annual Big 33 will be held Saturday in Hershey, Pa., matching standout seniors from Pennsylvania against those from Maryland. This is still considered the premier high school football all-star game in Pennsylvania. But what has happened to team rosters for this year's game is an example of how the game now struggles to get the top players in each state.
Nine players from the WPIAL who were originally selected to the Pennsylvania team in January have dropped out of the game for various reasons. And those nine included some of the biggest names in Western Pennsylvania, such as Gateway receiver-defensive back Montae Nicholson (Michigan State recruit), Thomas Jefferson linebacker Chase Winovich (Michigan), Aliquippa defensive back Dravon Henry (West Virginia), Mt. Lebanon lineman Alex Bookser (Pitt) and Mt. Lebanon receiver Troy Apke (Penn State).
A few other top players from both states never accepted invitations from the outset. A few started college in the spring semester. Of Rivals.com's top 20 Pennsylvania players in the Class of 2014, only five are in the Big 33.
It's even worse for Maryland. Of the top 25 players in the Class of 2014, only one is in the Big 33 -- tackle Justin Falcinelli (Clemson). Now, only 29 of the 68 Big 33 players are headed to Division I-A colleges. It used to be that the Big 33 only had a few players who weren't I-A recruits.
"It's certainly a challenge [to get players]," said Dave Trimbur, executive director of the Big 33. "But I still think the game is a viable game because of all the stuff that goes along with it. It's more than just a game."
One of the things the Big 33 prides itself on is that there has never been a Super Bowl without a former Big 33 player. But ever since the Big 33 was moved from late July to mid-June in 2006, the game seems to have lost some of its luster -- and that's because some top players have skipped it.
The reason Big 33 officials changed the game is that a new NCAA rule went into effect eight years ago that allows incoming college freshmen players to start their scholarships in the summer. If the Big 33 didn't move the game to mid-June, it would lose many top players who would already be taking college classes.
But some players have still left for college before this year's Big 33 practices started this past Saturday. Aliquippa's Henry left for West Virginia Sunday and is already taking classes and working out in Morgantown, W.Va.
"I just felt like West Virginia was a little more important than the Big 33," Henry said. "If I didn't come to school so early, I would've played."
Thomas Jefferson's Winovich said he dropped out of the game for a few reasons. The main one being that he was still nursing an Achilles injury from this past football season.
"The other reasons are because my brother [Pete] and his wife are having a baby this week and I want to be a part of that. It's a major family event," said Winovich. "But this is my last free week, too, before I leave for college next week. I talked to some kids who went to the Big 33 in the past and asked what I should do. They basically said it was a good experience. But even though it's a great honor to play, enjoy that last week with your family. That last week is something you can't get back."
Nicholson said he dropped out of the game because he originally thought he would be taking classes at Michigan State, but will not leave until later in the month.
"There were some other factors, too, but I don't think the game has lost any of its luster at all," said Nicholson. "Afraid of getting injured might be a factor for some, but that wasn't a big deal to me. "
As for the players who are in the game, nine are from the WPIAL. Among the best is Bethel Park lineman Mike Grimm (Pitt). One of Pennsylvania's two quarterbacks is Sto-Rox's Lenny Williams (Temple), who is the WPIAL's all-time leading passer.
Trimbur said this is the worst year for players dropping out of the game, but he said a crowd of 10,000 is still expected at Hersheypark Stadium. The 2013 game drew a little more than 9,000. The game can be seen live on the Internet on ESPN3.
"Some kids might be worried about getting hurt in some cases," Trimbur said. "But I think the game, the tradition of never having a Super Bowl without a Big 33 player, still lives and is an allure to some kids. I also think kids want to represent state against state.
"I truly believe things will cycle. There will be years kids will say they don't want to play, but the game will still be here."
Mike White: email@example.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.