East Xtra: Realignment shuffles conferences

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For Gateway High School, the 2014 football season will be a historic one for a program that has played in the WPIAL's highest classification since the school opened in 1958, but will now be playing a Class AAA schedule.

For Plum, the season will mean that two-hour bus rides to the southern reaches of Allegheny County and northern Washington County will be a thing of the past -- at least for the next two autumns.

And for Jeannette and Greensburg Central Catholic, the season will mean some new rivalries in a new classification as both schools will join such stalwarts as Clairton and Monessen in a newly configured Class A Eastern Conference.

Yes, change is coming for many schools in the WPIAL. Here are the salient points for schools in the Post-Gazette's East Xtra area.

* Class AAAA and Class AAA: Gateway, a longtime Class AAAA power, dropped to Class AAA and will play in the Greater Allegheny Conference. One of its rivals will be Franklin Regional, which is just across the Allegheny County line in the Westmoreland County community of Murrysville. Yough jumped up from Class AA and will also play in the GAC. Meanwhile, Plum takes Gateway's place in the Foothills after departing the SEC.

* Class AA: Derry Area dropped from the Greater Allegheny and will play in the Class AA Interstate Conference. Jeannette and Greensburg Central Catholic left the Interstate and will play in the Class A Eastern. Also, East Allegheny left the Interstate to play in the Century where it will renew acquaintances with some old foes such as South Allegheny and Steel Valley. Meanwhile, Burrell and Valley are indirectly affected by the changes to the Allegheny Conference as rival Highlands is just across the Allegheny River from those two schools.

* Class A: The Eastern Conference will have many changes with Greensburg Central Catholic and Jeannette joining the league along with Serra Catholic, Monessen and Clairton from the now-defunct Black Hills Conference along with Eastern holdovers Riverview, Wilkinsburg, Springdale and Leechburg.

Gateway interim athletic director Randy Rovesti believes the school's football team will be in Class AAA for quite some time.

"We've looked at enrollment numbers down through first grade, and we don't see that we'd be able to jump back into Quad-A any time soon," he said. "I believe our numbers are about 470 boys [in the top three grades next school year], and at places such as North Allegheny and Seneca Valley, they have more than 1,000 boys. At those schools, they have two or more players at every position to our one. So, we had to take that into consideration."

Rovesti said there was some disappointment in the Monroeville area about the Gators' move into Class AAA, but not a lot.

"I think when we explained what our [enrollment] numbers were, [the fans] accepted it," said Rovesti, a 1970 Gateway graduate. "We used to have one of the largest enrollments, but we don't anymore.

"We want to give our kids the best opportunity to be successful, and that means playing against schools that have enrollments that are similar to ours."

Rovesti said the rivalry with Franklin Regional is a natural one.

"They are not unfamiliar to us," he said. "We've played them a number of times, and when Franklin Regional was a Quad-A school, it was a pretty good rivalry."

At Plum, coach Matt Morgan could be excused if he was seen doing cartwheels.

"I'll take a two-hour drive to Altoona over a two-hour drive to the South Hills in horrible traffic," said Morgan, whose team moved into the Foothills Conference from the Southeastern Conference. "I only wish Penn Hills could have joined us, but we might see them in some [non-conference] games."

Morgan and some of his staff are familiar with the Foothills Conference schools, although his players aren't. And that trip to Altoona is an exception to the rule. Most of Plum's conference foes will be much closer.

"But we have done some seven-on-sevens with Penn-Trafford, and we've scrimmaged Latrobe. I think this is the right conference for us, and I'm happy we had the opportunity to move because we're not in a conference that has powerhouses like Upper St. Clair and Woodland Hills. And, our community is happy and excited."

Although Plum might not be facing a lot of powerhouses, Jeannette coach Roy Hall is confident that his team's new home in the newly configured Eastern Conference will have plenty of strong Class A teams.

Besides his squad and arch-rival Greensburg Central Catholic, the new league features WPIAL and PIAA multiple champion Clairton and a solid Monessen team.

"I'm glad [the WPIAL] kept us and Greensburg Central Catholic together," he said. "It would not have been fair to separate Clairton and Monessen, so I'm glad they are with us."

If there was any disappointment about Jeannette moving down to Class A after many years in AA, Hall hopes those disgruntled fans will look at some solid numbers.

"There was a time when gas used to be 75 cents a gallon, and Jeannette was a Class AAA school," he said. "But we now have 51 boys and girls in our 10th grade. We are just trying to be where we should be."

Hall said the school can't afford to lose any players, but that just happened when one of his top linemen move to Hempfield with his family.

"His father got into a good [job] situation," he said. "We can't afford to lose any players."

Hall said those who think that the Jayhawks will have an easy time in the Eastern Conference should check those feelings at the door.

"We are going to see some instant rivalry games," he said. "This will not be a cakewalk. We're going to tell our kids to respect our opponents because we know that they will respect us and be ready to play every week."

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