Playing conference opponents in opener changes outlook
In an effort to make history, Rich Bowen ignored Hempfield's past and focused only on the present.
If the opening week of the WPIAL football season proved anything, it's that the future is now.
From the start, every game counts.
Of the 65 games last weekend, 55 were conference contests, making it an unprecedented Week 1 in Western Pennsylvania prep football. A year ago, only 16 openers were conference games.
Never mind that Hempfield hadn't beaten McKeesport in conference play since they became Quad East foes in 2008, or that the Spartans had been outscored, 174-19, in the past four meetings.
When Hempfield won, 33-18, at McKeesport, it showed that there could be a shakeup in the standings this season.
“That was a rough first game, obviously,” Bowen said. “I would have liked to have had an exhibition game, especially being a new coach and installing a new system. When you go out and win, it's OK. If we had lost, it would've been a rough start.
“To beat McKeesport, a program with the reputation they have, was a confidence booster for us. When you take over a new program, every win is the same.”
Except for one thing: This counts in the conference standings. Hempfield, long a doormat, is now in first place.
On the flip side, Woodland Hills coach George Novak has been around long enough to know that opening with a win or loss won't make or break a season.
Novak points to a 1-3 start in 1996 as proof. That season, the Wolverines won the first of their five WPIAL Class AAAA championships. So, Novak isn't about to panic after a 31-12 loss at Upper St. Clair put the Wolverines in a five-way tie at the bottom of the Quad Central.
“I kind of liked it because you could tweak your team and see what kind of team you have,” Novak said. “We kind of learned some things right off the bat. You like playing good teams early because you find out what your strengths and weaknesses are. We found out what our weaknesses are and what we've got to work on.”
Woodland Hills (0-1) plays host to McKeesport (0-1) this week in a nonconference matchup that will leave one 0-2 and wondering how a season that started ranked in the Trib Total Media top 10 had gone south so fast.
“You have no choice,” said McKeesport coach Jim Ward, whose Tigers started seven sophomores and a freshman against Hempfield. “The schedule is what the schedule is. We don't control it, so you try to deal with it the best you can.”
Valley found motivation in its Class AA Allegheny Conference opener. The Vikings had a 22-game losing streak and hadn't won a conference game since beating Summit Academy Oct. 3, 2009, before a 14-7 victory over Deer Lakes.
“It was a chance to break the streak,” Valley coach Chad Walsh said, “and start 1-0 in the conference.”
Both Bowen and Walsh are first-year coaches, which made it difficult for their opponents to prepare for their schemes in the first week.
“Absolutely you would prefer to play them later,” Ward said. “You want to get a feel for what somebody is going to do, what their personality and mindset is, what they do best and how you can take it away.”
If there is another complaint in communities, it's that the conference openers came at the expense of regional rivalries. Hempfield typically opens with Greensburg Salem, Valley with Highlands and Connellsville against Uniontown.
Valley, however, now plays neighboring Burrell, which opened with a 41-7 win over Brownsville.
“It's a rivalry, and it's a conference game on top of that,” Walsh said. “Plus, it's Burrell's conference opener. It adds a little extra incentive. You can feel electricity in the air, being Burrell. We preached that it was nice to get that win, but now it's time to concentrate on Burrell.”
Bowen is preaching the same to his first-place Spartans.
“It means absolutely nothing if we don't follow it up with a good performance,” Bowen said. “When you take over a program that hasn't had much success in the past, you have to make sure they know how to handle a win.
“What's strange is, I'm already thinking in Week 1 that we control our own destiny. I'm not used to that. Usually you don't get into the meat of the schedule until Week 4 or 5.”
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.