Varsity Xtra: As Kittanning and Ford City prepare to merge, it's 'last ride'

As the high school football season kicks off tonight in Pennsylvania, the Kittanning and Ford City teams are optimistic about their fortunes this year.

You will never read that sentence again in the future.

No, Kittanning and Ford City won't be filled with pessimists. They'll just no longer have football teams.

Tonight is the beginning of the end for Kittanning and Ford City. The two schools located about 5 miles from each other in Armstrong County, will close after this school year and merge to form Armstrong High School.

The new high school is being built at a location between the two schools, about 45 miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. Starting with the 2015-16 school year, the purple and gold Sabers of Ford City and the red and white Wildcats of Kittanning will wear the blue and orange of the Armstrong Riverhawks

Some in Ford City and Kittanning surely hate to see the two schools merge. Critics of mergers feel towns or areas somewhat lose their sense of identity. But mergers or consolidations of schools are a way of life across the country, especially in Pennsylvania where some small schools struggle not only financially, but also with academic achievement of students.

According to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, there were between 2,500 and 2,600 school districts in Pennsylvania from the early 1900s through 1950. But by the 1969-70 school year, there were 669. By 2009-10, there were 500.

Many small schools in eastern Pennsylvania have closed, and the WPIAL has changed drastically because of mergers, consolidations and school closings, like when McKees Rocks and Stowe Township merged to form Sto-Rox in 1967, and when Monaca and Center merged to form Central Valley in 2010.

Sixty years ago, there were 158 schools playing WPIAL football. This year, there are 124.

At Ford City and Kittanning, there is a certain sense of urgency about this football season.

There is one season left to leave an everlasting impression. Everyone from the coaches to players at both schools would like nothing better than to go out with a bang. Kittanning players are wearing practice jerseys that have "Last Ride" printed on them.

The two Class AA teams will meet in the final regular-season game Oct. 24 at Kittanning.

"There's a lot to this season," said Garrett Virostek, a senior and three-year starter for Ford City. "For a while, Ford City football was the only thing this town had. A lot of people think the best times of their lives were when Ford City was good in football. Football means a lot to everyone in this town. We want to go out the best way possible."

Kittanning went 9-1 last season and had its first undefeated regular season since 1976. A number of starters return, including receiver-linebacker Nick Bowers, a Pitt recruit. Kittanning's coach is Frank Fabian, a 1997 Ford City graduate who played under current Ford City coach John Bartolovic.

"With the season we had last year, some historical things got turned up," Fabian said. "We had a lot of ex-players and ex-coaches coming back. That season helped make these kids realize the history they can have here.

"With this being the last year, I think there has been a little more attention, a little more focus on things. Our summer workouts were the best attended we've ever had. This is it, and I think the kids want to make it a good one."

The past

Ford City fielded its first football team in 1906 and Kittanning in 1908. Their rivalry in football goes all the way back to 1915. The teams have met 74 times and get this: Kittanning leads the series 37-36-1. Kittanning has qualified for the WPIAL playoffs 12 times and Ford City 10. Neither team has won a WPIAL title, although Kittanning did lose in the 1975 Class AA championship game to Beth-Center.

Both Ford City and Kittanning had two players make it to the NFL. Coincidentally, two of the four were Frerottes from different schools. Gus Frerotte played at Ford City and was an NFL quarterback and his cousin, Mitch, played at Kittanning and was an NFL lineman.

"The rivalry between the two schools is still strong, but in my opinion, it's not like it used to be," said Fabian. "With Facebook, Twitter and those things, these kids know each other now. It used to be that if you were from Ford City, you didn't talk to someone in Kittanning.

"I still remember when I lived on Fifth Avenue in Ford City. I was on the front porch with my dad and some Kittanning kids came right down Main Street in Ford City in a car, dragging a Gus Frerotte No. 12 dummy right down the street. Those were the good ol' days."

Ford City's Virostek said, "The game is still big, but I've heard back when Kittanning and Ford City hated each other. Now, we're pretty good friends. We might battle each other on the field, but we'll probably end up hanging out with each other afterward.

"Like [Kittanning's] Nick Bowers is a good friend of mine. I spent almost my whole life playing sports against him."

Actually, this isn't the first time Ford City and Kittanning are playing their final seasons. They are both part of the Armstrong School District that was started in the 1960s and at one time included seven high schools -- Ford City, Kittanning, Dayton, Elderton, Shannock Valley, East Brady and Worthington. Worthington eventually closed, and, in 1990, Kittanning and Ford City merged to form Armstrong Central High School (students attended the Kittanning High building), while Dayton and Shannock Valley merged to form Armstrong East. Armstrong Central actually made the 1990 WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs.

But the makeup of Armstrong's school board changed, and the new board voted to deconsolidate after the 1992-93 school year.

So, Ford City and Kittanning went back to having their own schools along with Dayton and Shannock Valley. Then, in 2000, Dayton and Shannock Valley merged to form West Shamokin High School. Elderton closed for good in 2012, and its students go to Ford City and West Shamokin. East Brady also is closed.

But there is no turning back on this Ford City-Kittanning merger.

"Back when they merged to make Armstrong Central, there was not a school built like now," Ford City's Bartolovic said. "I don't think next year will really be a problem for the kids. Back [in the early 1990s], I think people were a little different as a whole."

The future

Kittanning and Ford City might not be the only merger or consolidation in Western Pennsylvania's future. Moon Area officials are talking about possibly taking in the Cornell School District students. For years, there has been talk about tiny Clairton closing and its students possibly going to Thomas Jefferson. Not long ago, Duquesne High School closed and its students went off to either West Mifflin or East Allegheny.

"As budgets get tighter in school districts and pension and health care costs increase, districts are looking at ways to save costs and still be able to provide educational services that students and parents expect," said Steve Robinson, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "Some of the studies we've looked into with district mergers, the upside of cost savings that schools think will happen don't always pan out. ... Every district is going to have different reasons or arguments on why it makes sense or doesn't make sense."

As for athletics at the new Armstrong High School next year, no decisions have been made on who will coach. But the school nickname is Riverhawks and school colors will be blue and orange, like the University of Florida.

Ford City has 540 students this year in grades 9-12 while Kittanning has 620. The new Armstrong High will be Class AAA in football, but Class AAAA in basketball and baseball. Armstrong will be Class AAAA in both girls basketball and softball, and Class AAA in soccer.

Sports could help ease the merger transition.

"I've had teachers tell me before that some of the best school years were our great years in football," Bartolovic said. "The kids get in a great mood, and there is a great atmosphere. Sports can set the tone, especially football.

"Over time, things are due to change, and I think this [merger] was something inevitable. I really don't have any bad feelings about it. I think the kids are excited about the new place. They know it's been coming."

But first, there is a football season to be played, a chance to make memories.

"I don't think we're upset to see the school go," Virostek said. "I think we're upset that the purple jerseys and Ford City have to go down. We're anxious for change, but hate that such a great program has to be taken out."

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