Varsity Xtra: Year of the Turnaround
Hempfield quarterback Ty George runs for extra yardage against Kiski Area September 21.
Joey DeFloria runs for a Hempfield touchdown.
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When the WPIAL announces its football playoff pairings at a hotel ballroom every year, a few coaches actually bring a beer into the room and drink it during the proceedings.
But this year, champagne might have been more appropriate. There could have been a toast to the "new guys."
The WPIAL playoffs begin tonight and the field of 64 teams includes a number of veritable new faces. A few teams hadn't qualified for the playoffs in a long time -- South Allegheny since 1986 and Butler since 1998. Neshannock qualified for only the second time in almost 30 years.
Some other teams struggled mightily in recent years, only to have a successful season and qualify for the postseason. For example, Valley didn't win a game the past two seasons -- a 22-game losing streak -- but finished 6-3 and made the playoffs. Hempfield and Elizabeth Forward both won only two games the past two seasons, but made the playoffs.
More than ever, this WPIAL football season became "The Year of the Turnaround."
"We announced at the meeting that there are 19 teams in the playoffs this year that weren't in the playoffs last year," said Tim O'Malley, executive director of the WPIAL. "That's a lot. Last year we thought it was a lot when there were 10.
"What has contributed to this, we're unsure. But it's certainly encouraging. Regardless of whether these teams advance to Heinz Field for the championships, the fact that they just qualified for the playoffs has infused some life into their program and created some excitement at their schools."
Butler, Hempfield, Elizabeth Forward, South Allegheny, Valley, Freedom, Apollo-Ridge, Neshannock and Union could all be part of "Flip This House" stories, where a coach -- rookie or veteran -- takes a beat-up program and remodels it.
Throw Avella into the mix, too. Even though Avella didn't make the playoffs, the perennial poor Eagles finished 6-3, after winning only nine games in the previous 10 seasons. Avella almost qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1976.
"I know being in that room [Monday night] with all those other coaches, it might be old hat to a lot of them," said Butler coach Clyde Conti. "But that was pretty exciting for us. We're just really appreciative of everything this year."
There are a number of WPIAL turnaround stories, tales that give hope to schools -- big and small -- that might not win many games on a regular basis.
• At Neshannock, a Class A school just outside New Castle, the enthusiastic student section calls itself the "Lancer Lunatics." But many people at Neshannock are going crazy over the Lancers this season. The team finished 8-1, tied for the conference title and qualified for the playoffs for only the fifth time in school history. The others were 2004, 1982, 1978 and 1974. Neshannock will try to win a playoff game for the first time in school history tonight against Jefferson-Morgan.
Fred Mazzocio has turned around the Lancers in his first season as coach.
"I was an assistant at Neshannock from 2001-04 and we were 0-19 at one point the first two years," Mozzocio said. "So I know how hard it is to go so long without winning games. To have a season like this, you just cherish it. I tell the kids one of the hardest things you'll do in your life is try to win a football game. It's not easy.
"Success might be different for a lot of programs. For some schools, it might be just a 5-4 season or maybe even getting just a win after not winning before. All programs are different, but I think the only way you can turn something around is hard work. The kids have put so much time into this that people can't even imagine."
• Union, a Neshannock rival and neighbor, is 6-3 after winning only 10 games the previous five seasons. Union has been one of the feel-good stories this season because the school is the fourth-smallest in the WPIAL in terms of enrollment. Union has only 83 boys in the top three grades and only 23 players on the roster.
"It's very hard as a community when you keep losing kids or lose kids who find other outlets," said Union coach Stacy Robinson. "We don't have a big pool of kids to pick from, but I tell our people, 'Look you could be one of 1,000 boys at North Allegheny and not get to play any sports.' We have a lot of kids here who go right from football to basketball and then right to the baseball diamond. I think that's great."
Robinson, a former Union player, is in his 16th season as coach.
"I can give a seminar in frustration," said Robinson. "But by the same token, sometimes if you keep your head in there and keep plugging away, this proves something good can happen sometimes.
"I'm living out a dream. I got to coach both of my sons. My one son [Drew] is a senior on this year's team."
• Hempfield is 4-5, which might not seem like much. But the Spartans have won four games in a season only one other time since 2000. Plus, first-year coach Rich Bowen has had to deal with a slew of injuries to his skill-position players.
• Butler is the second-largest school in the WPIAL behind North Allegheny, but Butler has enjoyed little success in football the past 15 years. This is the Golden Tornado's first playoff appearance in 14 years and the team was winless in three of the past five seasons.
Conti, 61, is in his second year at Butler, but has been a head coach for 31 seasons. Butler has had a number of coaches in the past 15 years.
"I think it's very difficult in this day and age when most people aren't doing well in something, no matter what it is, they want to bail or not stay the course," Conti said. "But if you have adults who aren't willing to stay the course, why would you expect kids to be involved in something that's not successful?
"What we needed was a signature win, something to get things started and I think the Shaler win was big this year. But I thought when we beat Pine-Richland -- that was the signature win."
• Elizabeth Forward is 6-3, the first time the Warriors have won six games since 2000. They are in the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and won only two games the previous two seasons.
• South Allegheny is in the playoffs for the first time since 1986. The Gladiators are 7-2 after winning only 10 games in the past five seasons.
• Valley, under first-year coach Chad Walsh, was 0-17 the past two seasons. It wasn't all that long ago that Valley had a winning program, going 7-3 in 2008 and 2007.
"The biggest thing to change was just the kids' attitude toward football and the commitment it takes," said Walsh, 43, a former player at Highlands. "The main thing we pushed was to just get that first win. We tried to tell them that once that first win comes, a lot more good things can follow."
• Freedom had won only four games in the previous four seasons, but the Bulldogs are in the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
• Apollo-Ridge is 6-3 after winning only three games the previous two seasons. The Vikings are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
But while the turnarounds have been nice, all of the coaches will tell you it won't happen without at least a little bit of talent.
"I think what some of these teams have done is good for the league," O'Malley said. "It creates more interest. It creates more of a competitive balance."
Said Conti: "This might sound corny and strange, but it's a special feeling to stand next to kids who maybe didn't have a lot of success in the past, but still continued to battle. Sometimes, not everything is measured by wins and losses."
First Published November 2, 2012 12:00 am