North Xtra: Realignment shuffles Class AA and A teams

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When the WPIAL announced its classification and conference realignment for the 2014 high school football season, there weren't any significant changes for the North Xtra schools competing in Class AAAA.

The Northern Eight Conference will remain as it was in 2013.

There are, however, some big changes coming for the sport's other three classifications. Here are the significant points:

* Class AAA: Highlands dropped out of the Greater Allegheny Conference and joined the Class AA Allegheny Conference. Gateway, a longtime Class AAAA power, dropped one class and takes Highlands place in the GAC.

* Class AA: Summit Academy moved to the Midwestern Athletic Conference. In addition to Highlands, Apollo-Ridge also joined the Allegheny.

* Class A: Avonworth, Northgate and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic all left the Eastern Conference (Springdale was the only North Class A team to remain in the Eastern) and are part of the newly formed Ohio Valley Conference. This league also includes four teams from the now-defunct Black Hills Conference: Brentwood, Bishop Canevin, Chartiers-Houston and Fort Cherry. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart joined the OVC from the Big Seven. Also, Vincentian will compete in a WPIAL conference for the first time, joining the Class A Big Seven. For the past two seasons, Vincentian played a Tri-County South schedule as an Independent.

One coach extremely pleased with his team's move to Class AA is Highlands football coach Sam Albert.

In his 10th year as the Golden Rams coach, Albert is well-versed in the rivalries in the Northeastern part of Allegheny County and some Westmoreland schools that border the Allegheny River. Because some of these schools were in different classifications, some of the rivalries were dormant.

Not anymore.

With Highlands competing in the Allegheny Conference, the Golden Rams will have many rivals from within a 10-mile radius. They include Valley, Deer Lakes, Burrell, Freeport, Ford City and Kittanning.

The rivalry with the latter two schools could be short-lived as Ford City and Kittanning are forming a consolidated school scheduled to open in the fall of 2015. The WPIAL must do a reclassification following the 2014 season to accommodate the new school's student population and classification.

Nonetheless, Albert -- who has also coached at Freeport and Valley -- sees great days in store for at least two seasons for football fans in that area.

"We're really excited about [the Allegheny Conference]," he said. "The 'Battle of the [Tarentum] Bridge' between Highlands and Burrell will be back.

"In the past, I couldn't blame people for not wanting to drive two hours to go to a game. Now, our fans will only have to drive 5 miles or so to see our team on the road. I think there are going to be plenty of large crowds coming to our games. I know that the surrounding communities are excited about this league."

A similarly named game with Valley could occur as both the Rams and the Vikings must traverse that same bridge to get to the opposing school's stadium.

He expects fans from neighboring schools to come to Highlands games if their favorite team is playing possibly at West Shamokin.

"We're not that far away from Valley, Burrell or Deer Lakes, and those fans might be interested in one of our home games if their team is playing far away," he said. "We're close to a lot of other schools. We're expecting big crowds and competitive games."

An administrator looking forward to his school's new athletic conference is Bryan Kyle, the principal and athletic director at Northgate High School.

Rivalries with Avonworth and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic will continue in the Ohio Valley Conference, and he's looking forward to rivalries with the new conference members. Bishop Canevin was in the Black Hills Conference and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in the Big Seven before the most recent realignment.

Trips to Apollo-Ridge, West Shamokin, Leechburg, Wilkinsburg and Springdale are no longer on the docket for Northgate, and Kyle is fine with that.

"Anytime you have reduced travel time, that's a good thing," said Kyle, the school's athletic director for the past six years. "It's great for our student-athletes and our communities [of Bellevue and Avalon]. I'm not sure fans enjoy going long distances."

Kyle said his school's location makes it an attractive choice for schools and their fans coming to Bellevue for a football game. The school is located just off an Interstate 279 Interchange, and the football field about a mile from the school on Bellevue's main street, Lincoln Avenue.

"It's easy to get to Northgate, but our conference will have schools that are located relatively close to here. Our farthest trips might be to Chartiers-Houston, Brentwood and Fort Cherry. All the rest are relatively close."

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