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Camp away from home still in play for high school football teams

| Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Aliquippa's Jaleel Fields (left) leads linemen in running sprints during a work-out last week in Aliquippa.

Air conditioned rooms, a well-stocked cafeteria and shuttle rides around campus await Aliquippa's football team this week when it establishes camp.

This isn't quite roughing it like years ago, but the reasons for these five days away from home remain the same.

“It builds great camaraderie,” coach Mike Zmijanac said. “You can accomplish everything you want, and once you make it through camp, I've only had a handful of kids quit after that.”

The campgrounds are not as busy this August as they once were, but going away for camp hasn't completely vanished as a high school football summer traditions.

When camps open Monday around the WPIAL and City League, the overwhelming majority of schools will stay home for practice, choosing the convenience, comfort and cost efficiency of their own campus. But a small contingent will have traveled, including Aliquippa to California (Pa.) University.

“The only drawback is financial,” Zmijanac said, “and as long as we can find a way to do it, we will.”

For a small district such as Aliquippa, that requires considerable fundraising. Last year's cost for five days at California was $11,000. Zmijanac has secured $8,000 in donations for this year's trip, including “a few thousand dollars” from Mike Ditka. The school covers the rest.

“Could we do it at home? Yeah,” said Zmijanac, who insisted that the logistics would be incredibly difficult, especially if the school didn't provide every meal.

And the school's cost is cheaper than buying five days of food, he said.

“Would you have the kids go home for lunch? How are they getting back here? They have to walk,” he said. “That's a long walk for a lot of these guys. Now, after your second practice, do they go home for dinner? Then they have to come back here. That's a long way and a lot of distraction.”

The reigning WPIAL Class AA champion schedules its camp days to start at 7 a.m. and finish at 10 p.m.

“I believe if they stayed here and we tried to do the exact same thing, they'd be exhausted,” Zmijanac said. “They would be absolutely exhausted.”

There's also the likelihood some players would arrive late and others just wouldn't come back.

“Nobody can be late,” Zmijanac said. “If the bus leaves for practice and you're not on it, we have a problem.”

Among those also visiting California will be South Allegheny and Vincentian. Charleroi, Valley and Westinghouse will camp at Slippery Rock University.

Others have found more isolated spots. Elizabeth Forward will shelter at Bishop Connare Center in Latrobe, Beaver Falls has reserved SNPJ's property in Lawrence County, and Indiana will stay at Kiski School.

“It's nice to have a least one week away where you don't have to worry about distractions,” Beaver Falls coach Ryan Matsook said. “In the days leading up to school, people want to school shop or do this and that.”

Some longtime campers have changed approach in recent years. Woodland Hills traditionally stayed at Camp Twin Echo, a Boy Scout camp near Ligonier, but stopped a few summers ago because of cost, coach George Novak said. The team now camps at the Wolvarena with tents at the stadium and a bonfire.

“We still try to make it a bonding experience for the kids,” Novak said. “It was a very tough decision (to leave Twin Echo). My staff didn't like it at first, but they're disappointed we don't go there now. They see the advantage, but you've got to do what you've got to do.”

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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