North Xtra: First year in football challenges Vincentian
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About 13 miles north of Downtown sits North Allegheny High School.
Situated on a sprawling campus with an enrollment of about 1,400 students in the top two grades, the school is affectionately known to some as "The U," a nickname referencing not only the school's size, but also its athletic prowess.
In football, the Tigers have won consecutive WPIAL Class AAAA championships, spent the entirety of this season ranked No. 1 in their class and play in a 5,000-seat stadium before routinely sold-out crowds.
Vincentian Academy is separated from North Allegheny by a 4-mile stretch of Perry Highway and McKnight Road, but it may as well be an entire universe away. Perched atop a hill overlooking a small green space used as a football practice field, the school has about 250 students in grades 9 through 12..
Unlike North Allegheny and many others in the WPIAL, there is no storied gridiron tradition at Vincentian Academy, a small private Catholic school. No trophies lined in a case. No framed pictures memorializing former glory. For the longest time, there was no team at all -- that is, until this season.
With the Royals completing their first varsity season last week, for those involved in the program, lessons have been learned, challenges have been faced and goals have been met.
"Anytime you start up a new program, it's going to be a challenge," Vincentian athletic director Steve Boyd said. "With the number of players, we're trying to spark some interest here."
Predictably, challenges have presented themselves to Vincentian, ones that administrators and coaches said they fully expected. In a sport such as football, one so heavily reliant upon organization, structure and sheer manpower, starting a program from scratch has proven to be a task as difficult as it has been rewarding.
Of all Vincentian's early struggles, none stands out more than what amounts to a simple numbers game.
The team's official roster lists 20 players, but several team members were injured early in the season and, according to coach Tim Storino, for most practices this season the Royals have had just 14-15 players.
Playing against teams with 30 players or more on the roster was a disadvantage for Vincentian in games, but the lack of bodies was felt the most during practices.
"Anyone who's been around knows that it's hard to give a good look at the other side of the ball perspective, as to how it's going to look like in a game [without sufficient numbers]," Storino said. "We've had coaches filling in, holding bags and blocking shields. We haven't been able to get a great look."
Though the Royals were short in numbers for their first season of competition, for many of their players, the mere existence of a program gave them a chance to not only play varsity football, but experience some of the joys that come with it.
For senior wide receiver/defensive back Alex Frazer, it was a three-year wait that began with no guarantee of a team, but he has relished the opportunity to play.
"I never really thought we would ever have a football team, being a small Catholic school," he said. "I came from North Allegheny, so there's always football and all of the big sports, always dominating. It's fun. I enjoy it -- it's really different."
Indeed, even with all of the challenges, there have been some memorable moments for the team's players. Some talked glowingly of a preseason camp the team attended at California University of Pennsylvania, something which Frazer said helped the team come together.
But more than anything else, it was the team's lone moment of glory -- a 62-8 win against Geibel Catholic -- that stood out.
Having lost their first two games by at least 20 points, the Royals scored almost as many points in a 48-minute period as they had in all of their other games combined. Though it was against one of the only other WPIAL teams as undermanned as Vincentian, it could not take anything from what they accomplished.
"We were slipping at the time and we were starting to get discouraged," freshman Steve Succop said. "That just sort of brought us up and pulled us together."
Now, with the growing pains of the debut season in the past, Boyd, Storino and those around the program are looking forward to the next steps in the process.
Vincentian will have 13 players coming back next season, so it will be a much more experienced group, though Storino stressed the importance of getting a larger freshmen class next season.
A larger, much more long-term goal also looms -- the construction of an on-campus facility. Vincentian played all of its games this season on the road and while there is a field on school grounds, a turf field, lights and a scoreboard, among other things, would have to be installed, with Storino estimating the cost of construction to be $500,000 to $1 million.
But while the obstacles remain tall and the road to relevance appears to be long, those around the program are proud of what it was able to accomplish and look forward to seeing it grow in the years to come.