Dying tradition on Friday nights? Small towns cling to high school football in face of possible mergers
Ashae Berry, 16, leads the Clairton cheerleaders along Miller Avenue to the Clairton stadium before a home game Sept. 24 against Chartiers-Houston.
The Neshannock marching band performs Sept. 17 under the stadium lights at halftime during a game at Sto-Rox High School.
Clairton fans cheer on the football team as players enter the stadium during a home game Sept. 24 against Chartiers-Houston.
Sharaya Dorsey, 18, reacts to a play on the field Sept. 17 during a Sto-Rox home game against Neshannock.
Paige Moody, 18, right, cheers for the Clairton marching band as it marches along Miller Avenue. She is a Clairton graduate and a former band member.
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Fall Fridays in Monaca are pretty quiet now. No longer do people have parties and walk to the football stadium. No longer do fans pack the restaurants.
No longer does the announcer's voice float up out of the valley, stating: "And now the starting lineup for your Monaca Indians!"
"I remember as a player coming down that ramp [from the locker room], all the fans reaching out and hitting you on the shoulder pads," Mayor John Antoline said. "It was quite a thrill."
But it's a thrill that no Monaca High School boy will know again because Monaca High School no longer exists. It merged with Center Area High School this year; the erstwhile Indians are now Central Valley Warriors, playing up the hill at Center's old stadium.
Does that matter to anyone outside of Beaver County?
It does because Monaca's situation is not unique.
Imagine Western Pennsylvania football without the Clairton Bears or the Jeannette Jayhawks. What if the Sto-Rox Vikings sailed no more? That's three storied programs in three football-mad areas, and all three are small, shrinking school districts in struggling former mill towns, just like Monaca.
There are plenty more: Aliquippa, Rochester, Monessen, Brentwood, Bethlehem-Center and Cornell.
Others have traditions that permeate their communities even if on-field success has been elusive. One of those is Northgate, made up of Bellevue and Avalon.
"There are enough people at games that the stands are full and people are two- to three-deep on the end zone fence," Bellevue Mayor George Doscher said.
All could cease to exist if the state Legislature mustered the political will to force mergers.
"Eventually, down the road, we're going to have to face facts," Clairton school board President Richard Livingston said.
What would it mean to these towns, which have already lost so much, to lose football as well?
"We don't even want to think about that," Jeannette restaurant owner Tony DeNunzio Sr. said. "The town would be devastated."
"If we would lose our school, our football team, a big part of our identity would be gone," Clairton Mayor Richard Lattanzi said. "I'd compare it to when U.S. Steel closed down."
"It's like the last remaining piece of our pride and dignity," Mr. Doscher said.
Would the region lose something, a part of what makes Western Pennsylvania special, if small-school football were to go the way of the leather helmet?
There is, after all, an image of what football is all about in the region. Think of the film "All the Right Moves," with a young Tom Cruise starring for his local team in the hardscrabble mill town of Ampipe -- named for the fictional American Pipe Co., an obvious nod to Ambridge and the American Bridge Co.
In the image, football is king and the players are the towns' princes. They are the pride of their towns, laboring in sweat and mud under stadium lights. Everyone in town knows their names and wears their colors. And, football, if they're good enough, is the ticket to something better.
That image is not about mega school districts, such as North Allegheny or Gateway or Upper St. Clair. It's about the little guys, and they have some decided common threads:
• They represent small towns where most residents are natives -- there is a strong sense of the football team as "our boys." Consequently, townsfolk tend to be united in their football fanaticism.
"I teach in another school district, and they have a good team, but it's not the same," Mr. Livingston said. In Clairton, he said, retirees show up to watch practices. Churches schedule fish fries around home games. People know all the players by their first names.
"Every business in town has a banner for the team, 'State Champions 2009,' " Mr. Livingston said. "City Hall has one. The mayor's office has one. The lady who sells dresses has it in her window. It's Clairton."
In Jeannette, there's a tradition of traveling with the team that rivals that of Steelers fans. "A lot of schools we go to, we outnumber their fans," Mr. DeNunzio said. And back home, "nearly every car in town has a Jayhawk emblem," he said.
• They have old stadiums in their downtowns to which many fans walk.
"There are probably 10 different restaurants and bars here, and they're all jammed on Friday night," Mr. DeNunzio said. Clay Avenue, Jeannette's main street, is "just humming quite strongly" whenever there's a game.
"If Northgate merged with Avonworth and played up there, where would we go?" asked Avalon borough manager Harry Dilmore. "You drive to get there; you drive to leave; no one stands around talking. You might stop at Giant Eagle to get a quart of milk, but it's not quite the same."
Instead, the Bellevue business district is packed before Northgate games, and afterward a bunch of diehards gathers at a particular watering hole.
"The coach brings down the game tape, and we all get some beer and some wings and watch the game all over again," Mr. Dilmore said. "You can't manufacture that."
• The crowds are multi-generational and have traditions regarding how they watch the games.
"The middle-aged and older people look forward to going to the games as much as the younger people do," Stowe Commissioner Amy Kochirka said of Sto-Rox games. "People have their same spot where they stand for every game. It brings people together."
Another unique aspect of Sto-Rox game nights: People who live on Dale Street can sit on their front porches and watch the games, and many have cookouts and do just that.
"All the guys in their 50s and 60s are on the end-zone fence, nearest the concession stand and the Porta-Johns," Mr. Dilmore said with a laugh.
"I like seeing the guys who played back in the 1950s and 1960s," Mr. Lattanzi said. "They all congregate in one part of the stadium, and you know they're talking about the good old days."
• History is more than just two or three generations.
"The 1939 team was a great one," said Joe Pacelli, who announced Jeannette games for 43 of his 85 years. "And 1956, with Dick Hoak," who would go on to play and coach for the Steelers for almost 50 years.
"I used to play up on that field," said Mr. Dilmore, who played for Avalon before it merged with Bellevue to form Northgate in the late 1960s. "The band would lead us up through town from the school to the stadium, and if we won they'd turn their hats backward and lead us back again."
• The games have traditions going back long enough that few know how they started.
In Sto-Rox, a favorite is "the circle." When the Vikings score, the cheerleaders and majorettes gather in the end zone where the band sits. They form a circle and, with the band playing the alma mater, do a dance routine that has not changed for generations.
"I graduated in 1987, and we did it when I was there, and it had been done forever since then," Mrs. Kochirka said.
In Northgate, the big tradition is ringing the old Bellevue High School bell, which is now mounted outside the stadium.
"When they win, the captains go ring the bell once for each of the points they scored," Mr. Dilmore said. He said the ringing has been all too infrequent in recent years, but when the Flames scored 44 points in this year's opener, "it was pretty nuts. They were trading off and naming new captains to get all those rings in."
Another twist to that tale: School maintenance people take the clacker out of the bell so no one can ring it randomly, then have to rush to put it in if the team wins.
"Someone," Mr. Dilmore said, "is the keeper of the clacker."
The question is, of course, whether all of those things will someday go the way of the Bridge Game.
"The Bridge Game was the hardest tradition to lose," Mr. Antoline, the Monaca mayor, said. "There was always a parade, always so much talk. When guys talk about playing football, that's always what you hear about."
The game, for the uninitiated, was between Monaca and its cross-river rival Rochester. The prize was naming rights to the bridge that spans the Ohio River between the two towns. If the Indians won, it would be the Monaca-Rochester Bridge for the next year. If the Rams won, it would be the Rochester-Monaca Bridge. Now it has one name on one end and the other name on the other -- and it will stay that way.
Could the same fate befall "the circle" in Sto-Rox, the bell-ringing in Northgate, the every-game parade in Clairton?
Mr. Livingston said Clairton has made a concentrated effort to keep its academics up to snuff. But with an enrollment of 840 and dwindling, the future is uncertain.
Jeannette is larger at 1,180 but is also shrinking. Mr. Pacelli believes it's just a matter of time. "The state's going to force us to merge with someone," he said. "People just don't want to acknowledge that."
Northgate is more stable, but it has a natural merger partner in Avonworth. Sto-Rox is one of the region's most financially troubled districts, with some board members talking about declaring bankruptcy and letting the state take over.
The Monaca-Center merger was voluntary, and so far no other pair of districts has made the same leap. But there's a push at the state level: Gov. Ed Rendell proposed reducing the state's 500 school districts to 100, and there is legislation calling for countywide school districts.
Many in Monaca would urge other districts to follow their lead. Their children are now in newer schools. Central Valley rebuilt its curriculum for the high school and middle school; it's an improvement for children from both former districts.
Central Valley High School has ample space and new technology. And Monaca's high school is now Central Valley Middle School, complete with a gym and auditorium and playing fields of its own.
What's more, Central Valley is saving more than $1 million per year compared to the separate budgets of Center Area and Monaca.
It might take awhile, though, for Friday nights to feel the same.
"That first Central Valley game, there were a lot of Monaca people there. A lot of Monaca people stood -- the same people that stood along the ramp in Monaca stood along the ramp in Central Valley," Mr. Antoline said.
"This is the way it's going to be. You have to embrace it."
And in an odd twist, junior high and midget games played in Monaca's old stadium are drawing larger-than-expected crowds.
"Maybe people just want to go there," Mr. Antoline said. "There's still football down at the stadium."
First Published October 7, 2010 12:00 am