Drive your car down the Route 19 corridor in the South Hills just after 6 on an autumn Friday night and the kaleidoscope that is high school football fandom is palpable.
See that group over there with the orange shirts on coming out of Houlihan's at the Galleria? Well, they are Bethel Park fans on the way to see how good their team -- and that new synthetic playing surface -- is.
See that bunch on their way into Bado's on Beverly Road? That crew is intent on putting back a large bianco pizza and then heading over to see the Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils play.
Steer past DeLallo's on Fort Couch Road and out the window appears a throng of Upper St. Clair fans about to feast on some chicken saltimbocca before the game. They ask themselves, "Coach Jim Render has won a bunch of games, can he lead us to victory again tonight?"
There also will be those in purple headed off to catch a Baldwin game and still more down South a little farther hoping that coach Guy Montecalvo's Canon-McMillan squad pulls out a victory.
But there's another commonality -- the teams all those people root for will play in the same conference.
Meet the members of the WPIAL Class AAAA Great Southern Conference, one that is truly predicated on geography (with McKeesport joining in from a few miles away).
From 1990-99 it was that way, with the teams along the Route 19 corridor lumped into the same conference to form true neighborhood rivalries. Then, for the past half-decade, shifting and shuffling ensued with the alignments, and it didn't always shake down with the traditional rivals being paired in the same conference.
In 2002 and '03, Upper St. Clair played in the Quad West, Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park were members of the Quad North, and Baldwin participated in the Quad East. In that arrangement, Upper St. Clair called Albert Gallatin a conference foe, but not Mt. Lebanon. The distance between Upper St. Clair and Albert Gallatin is 56 miles; the distance between the football fields in Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon is 3.8 miles.
That kind of thing rankled Render, who often criticized former WPIAL executive director Larry Hanley.
"Back when the WPIAL realigned the Quad A conferences that time, the only person I know, on the entire planet, who didn't want to see Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon play football every year was Larry Hanley," Render said.
"Now, we're back playing Mt. Lebanon and it is good for both communities and something that should have always happened. The years when we didn't play Mt. Lebanon, and the other schools along Route 19, I'm sure all the communities felt like something was missing."
What was missing was playing against another community that you grew up battling. From the time their necks can barely support the weight of a pee-wee football helmet, Bethel Park youngsters want to beat their counterparts from Mt. Lebanon, who want to beat Upper St. Clair, who get satisfaction from besting Baldwin, and so on.
"The biggest factor is probably the proximity of the communities to each other and the tradition that is here with the rivalries," said Bethel Park coach Jeff Metheny. "These are kids who grew up playing against each other in every sport and have carried that onto the high school football field. We thought it was a great conference before, when everyone in the South Hills was together. Now we are expecting it to be rock solid again."
Baldwin coach Mike Silianoff said, "These teams playing each other the way it is now, well ... when you think of WPIAL football and the sense of community pride in the South Hills, this is the way it ought to be."
GREAT SOUTHERN DATA
TEAM TO BEAT
Upper St. Clair The Panthers will find out how much grit they have right out of the gate, as their first three of four games are on the road. Look for seniors Dane Conwell (RB/LB 6-1, 195), an Indiana recruit, and Pat McShane (QB/CB 5-11, 175) to lead on both sides of the ball. Junior Grant Serdy (RB 6-1, 195) will have an expanded role this season in an effort to replace some of the void left by the
graduation of 1,000-yard rusher Ramy Nubani.
McKeesport George Smith's team might have lost some talent from the PIAA championship squad last year, but it is far from decimated or depleted. Senior Kamryn Keys (5-11, 175) takes over at quarterback and junior Marvase Whindleton (RB 5-8, 170) is as shifty a back as there is in Class AAAA.
Bethel Park Senior Jeff Stewart (QB 6-4, 195) threw for 1,311 yards last year and senior Justin Pratt rushed for another 918. Seniors Alex Wojdowski (TE 6-1, 230) and Tim Picard (WR 6-3, 190) are better known for their basketball exploits, but will be key factors.
Mt. Lebanon Senior Andrew Devlin (TE/DE 6-5, 265) is tremendous. But, who else is going to step up? Coach Chris Haering needs a big year from seniors Rob Marasti (QB 5-8, 170), Joe Rodella (RB 5-9, 185) and Chip Young (RB 6-1, 180).
Baldwin The Highlanders are rebuilding. Coach Mike Silianoff lost standouts Jason Pinkston, Cart Kelly, Justin Schmotzer and Justin Hargrove off last year's team. Look for senior Nadeem Farah (LB 5-11, 187) to be the leader this year.
Canon-McMillan The Big Macs make the leap back into Class AAAA after spending the past two years in the Class AAA Big Seven Conference. Canon-Mac's top talents are youngsters and they could be a year from making some real noise.
FIVE TO WATCH
Dane Conwell, Sr., Upper St. Clair, LB/RB, 6-1, 195; Andrew Devlin, Sr., Mt. Lebanon, TE/OL/DL, 6-5, 265; Larry Gooden, Sr., McKeesport, DT, 5-11, 275; Pat McShane, Sr., Upper St. Clair, QB/CB, 5-11, 175; Jeff Stewart, Sr., Bethel Park, QB, 6-4, 195.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Upper St. Clair at Mt. Lebanon, Oct. 27.