Looking up: Trio of A-K Valley teams face raised expectations after turn-around seasons
“Promised Land” was filmed in and around the communities of Apollo and Vandergrift, not far from New Kensington.
The movie is about a pair of corporate natural gas workers — played by Matt Damon and John Krasinski — who attempt to obtain mineral-drilling rights from people in the heart of rural America.
The salesmen were trying to bring communities together with fracking. But high school football — in real life — already tapped into that fertile ground.
Things are looking up for three Alle-Kiski programs that finally reached the promised land last season — in this case, the WPIAL playoffs. And a return trip appears to be in order for Apollo-Ridge, Kiski Area and Valley.
“At the same time, we're still seen as underdogs,” Apollo-Ridge junior wide receiver/defensive back Tre Tipton said. “We've heard about other teams saying we had a lucky season. We want to prove them wrong. We don't play for ourselves; we play for our town. Hopefully, this is the year we can give them something back.”
Apollo-Ridge lost only six seniors from a 6-4 team that pulled a pair of upsets on its way to a return playoff trip, some five years removed from its last one.
Some consider the Vikings the favorite in the Class A Eastern Conference. A recently renovated Owens Field has a rejuvenated team to match.
They toppled top-10 teams in Avonworth and Northgate and won five of their final six, all while averaging a conference-best 28.7 points.
“There is no doubt that last year's successes will carry over to this season, and we believe that we will be very competitive,” Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba said. “But we also understand that we can't rest on last year's accomplishments.”
Said senior quarterback Jesse Zelonka: “Our hopes are high, but we're staying humble.”
At Kiski Area, the mood also appears upbeat as the Cavaliers aim for another playoff run.
With a new coach and offensive and defensive schemes to match, Kiski Area went 4-6 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
The Cavaliers have three players who are considered Division I prospects — tight end Shane Kuhn, receiver Joey Brungo and kicker Adam Mitcheson — thus raising the team's expectations.
“We have a lot of kids who now know how it feels to make the playoffs,” Kuhn said. “Now, you see a higher expectation. It's our motivation. The goal always is to improve.”
Fans have dotted venerable Davis Field for years while waiting for the team to have a breakthrough in the WPIAL's largest classification, often dominated by the largest schools.
Four words heard throughout the district as fall approaches: “Is this the year?”
Kiski Area hasn't had a winning season since 2003. It hasn't won a playoff game since 1990.
“We've been .500 here or there and had some big wins, but there are hurdles that haven't been reached,” Kiski Area coach Dave Heavner said. “Last year, we won our first two games and won our homecoming game for the first time since 2001. Those are building blocks.”
Valley fans also are asking for an encore.
After disposing of a 22-game losing streak on opening night against Deer Lakes, the Vikings qualified for the Class AA playoffs with a 6-3 mark, which included impressive wins over Freeport and Kittanning.
And like the losing streak, down went a three-year playoff drought.
Attendance at home games wasn't at full force last year, but it seemed to improve as the season wore on and the Vikings improved. The Willie Thrower statue might have even turned around to catch a few plays at Memorial Stadium.
“(Last season) set a good foundation for us, but we want to take the program to that next step,” Valley second-year coach Chad Walsh said. “Going 6-4 was nice, but we expect more. We're not going to sneak up on anybody. Now we have to stress to work even harder.”
Valley moved down from Class AAA to AA last season, a beneficial change that rekindled some local matchups. Apollo-Ridge also moved, from Class AA to A, and flourished. Drops in classification, though, didn't mean a drops in success.
“Right now, we're not flying under anyone's radar,” Valley senior quarterback Ty Matthews said. “Nobody expected Valley to come in and beat them last year. Now we have a target on our backs. I expect us to go farther than we did last year. The coaches expect more from us.”
The Alle-Kiski Valley hasn't had a WPIAL champion since Springdale in 2003. That year took a group effort to bring back a finger-print-smudged trophy from Heinz Field.
Local teams might be improved, but they need backing to keep moving forward.
“That's why I love small-school, small-town football in Western Pennsylvania,” Skiba said. “There's nothing like Friday nights, and we want people to know that Apollo-Ridge is a special place to play high school football. I constantly talk about ‘We are A-R,' meaning we, as a district and community, are playing on Friday nights. We're all in this together.”
Even Matt Damon needed a supporting cast to reach the “Promised Land.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.