Is Burrell-Valley rivalry not what it used to be?
They took the cannon.
And to this day, nobody seems to know how. Just like few can comprehend how someone could walk into Valley High School and swipe the Viking statue from the gym lobby.
Burrell's ground-shaking cannon, fired after the Buccaneers score touchdowns at home games, disappeared years ago.
It resurfaced later, repainted in Valley black and gold.
The bearded mascot also was recovered, so rumor has it, miles from its home and scratched like a stray cat might be after a back-alley scrape-up.
Like the cannon itself, which startles everyone in the stadium — even when they know the boom is coming — the heists should have come as a surprise. Or, at least one would think so.
But not during Burrell-Valley week. The elaborate pranks that led up to gameday were commonplace in the 1980s and into the 90s.
Today, though, the game seems to come and go like a deer crossing Route 56 — and with the same gentleness.
So what happened?
The once-hated football rivals, who used to exchange harmless pranks and started chirping about their showdown weeks in advance, seem to have mellowed.
Could the rivalry be turning into just another game?
“Times have changed,” said Burrell assistant Tom Henderson, a long-time Buccaneers' head coach and a Valley grad. “It's still a great rivalry game, but it doesn't seem to have the same feel it did years ago.”
When the teams meet for the 34th consecutive year on Friday night in New Kensington, players will take the field with a natural high that comes with playing their neighbor. But will they truly grasp what the matchup is all about?
“It's too friendly,” Valley senior lineman Terrell Fields said. “I don't like Burrell kids, and they shouldn't like us. It needs to get back to the way it used to be.”
Coaches will not encourage pranks but over the years got used to them as part of the rivalry.
Perhaps the war of words has shifted to social media — again, an avenue many coaches frown upon but don't completely discourage players from using.
“The thing is, it's usually the weaker team that (initiates) things like that,” Henderson said of pranks. “They feel the need to send a message before the game rather than on the field.”
Valley coach Chad Walsh agrees. The chest-thumping and one-upping should be done after kickoff.
“I think you get more focused on being prepared to play so you don't think about that stuff,” Walsh said.
Burrell has won the last four meetings, including 41-6 last season after winning in overtime two years ago.
“It's been a little lop-sided the last few years,” Walsh said. “We're looking to change that.”
When he was a sophomore, Burrell coach Kevin Horwatt made his first career start at quarterback for Burrell when the Buccaneers played at Valley.
“I get goose bumps just talking about (the rivalry) and Valley, and I'm 34 years old,” Horwatt said. “That's how I want our kids to feel.”
Burrell senior wide receiver Brennan Brothers moved to the district several years ago from Phoenix, Ariz. It didn't take him long to realize that Burrell-Valley was a big deal.
“Right away, I could feel the tension,” he said. “It is really something special.”
Brothers said no rivalries in the desert compared to Burrell-Valley.
“None,” he said. “It's the Battle of the Bypass; it's a hard-nosed game, and you know both teams are going to be flying at one another.”
Fields is a standout wrestler and said the intensity is greater among the schools on the mat.
“You don't see kids (from each school) hanging out together,” Fields said. “You stay with your teammates.”
The football matchup could pick up steam in the future, but for now, Brothers said, “It's a civil rivalry. It doesn't get too crazy.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.