WPIAL teams value hard-to-come-by nonconference games in Week 1
Bethel Park coach Jeff Metheny might wonder if there's a sadist among the people responsible for making the WPIAL football regular-season schedules.
That theory would explain why the Black Hawks, in addition to opening Quad Central conference play with WPIAL Class AAAA preseason favorite Woodland Hills and perennial title contender Upper St. Clair in week 2 and 3, begin the season in a nonconference clash against 2013 PIAA finalist Central Catholic.
“We got about the worst draw of anybody,” Metheny said. “The No. 1 thing is: Stay healthy.”
The season-opening nonconference game, once standard in the WPIAL, now is fairly rare — there are just eight among 62 games this weekend. And perhaps partially because of that rarity, nonconference openers inspire some coaches to fear a confidence-crushing start to the year, and cause others to breathe a sigh of relief because their teams' debuts are low-stakes affairs.
For first-year Ambridge coach Dan Bradley, whose team meets Class AAAA Baldwin on Friday, a game with little beyond pride on the line is ideal. Few of his Bridgers enter the year with varsity experience, and Bradley wants as much time as possible to assess his players before the Class AAA Parkway Conference contests.
“We almost look at it as another scrimmage game,” said Bradley, previously Sto-Rox's coach. “You think you know your team, but on a Friday night under the lights, you never know how things will go.”
For much of the past decade-plus, Ambridge opened its season against regional rival Aliquippa. But in 2012, the WPIAL eliminated the freedom for schools to schedule their Week 1 opponent, and the Bridgers-Quips tradition became an annual uncertainty.
“I'm sure the kids would love to play Aliquippa, but it didn't happen this year,” Bradley said. “Hopefully, that comes back. That's a great tradition, and we'd love to see it continue.”
While the season opener previously was a traditional rivalry game for some WPIAL programs, it served as a chance for schools to enhance their national profile.
Central Catholic coach Terry Totten often sought an out-of-state opponent when he had the opportunity. His career began in 2005 with a loss to Cleveland powerhouse St. Edward. In 2007, Central Catholic beat Northmont (Ohio). In 2008, it lost to Lakeland (Fla.). And in 2009, it defeated Ursuline (Ohio).
“I think that was a good thing for kids around here to get some national exposure,” Totten said. “It was unfortunate that they took that away.”
A tough-but-thrilling nonconference opener now is a matter of luck. California happened to draw former Black Hills Conference foe Clairton one season after the Trojans gave the Bears a brief scare — Clairton trailed California, 7-0, in Week 3 of 2013 before pulling away to secure the last of its state-record 66 consecutive wins.
“The first reaction was, ‘Not again,' because through my experience as an assistant at Monessen and then last year. It seems like they're always on my schedule,” California coach Bo Teets said. “But I think coming down through the pike, it'll be a real measure of where we are as a team right now.
“The pieces are much different this year than they were last year. Last year, we were pretty senior-laden. We're in a similar situation to what they were in last year, but there's a difference in overall athleticism.”