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Leechburg excited about move to District 6

| Sunday, April 28, 2013, 12:36 a.m.
Kehley Shank, contributing photographer
KLT-WestShaLeech-102012 West Shamokin's Alex Lasslo attempts to strip the ball from the hands of Leechburg's Jacob Iellimo Friday night at Veteran's Memorial Field in Leechburg. (Kehley Shank, contributing photographer) Kittanning Leader Times
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
A Leechburg softball championsship banner hangs in the high school gymnasium on Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
A Leechburg boys basketball championsship banner hangs in the high school gymnasium on Wednesday, April 17, 2013.
Leechburg's Matt Barto studies a putt during the PIAA Western Regional on Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, at Tom's Run Golf Course in Blairsville. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review

Two years from now, Miranda Reesman could be helping Leechburg's girls basketball team compete for a playoff spot in District 6.

At least that's the hope the sophomore has as Leechburg gets set to leave the WPIAL — where it has competed in athletics since 1919 — to be with more rural schools like itself.

The proposed move, which has cleared WPIAL waivers and seeks PIAA approval, has Leechburg joining District 6 and competing in the Heritage Conference starting in the 2014-15 school year.

With the switch, several Leechburg sports teams expect a more level playing field.

Leechburg's girls basketball team hasn't made the WPIAL playoffs since 2005-06 and hasn't won more than four games in a season since. A team that has played up in Class AA to be nearer other local schools in recent years will take a 25-game losing streak into its potential final WPIAL campaign next winter.

“It gets pretty old,” Reesman said. “When you're playing teams like Burrell, you just have to cringe. You know you're in for a whoopin.' ”

Leechburg hopes leaving the WPIAL will provide not only a change of scenery but also a modification to a dwindling sports culture that's seemingly remained unchanged for years.

Nothing is guaranteed, and the unchartered territory for Leechburg could take some getting used to.

“A lot has been said: some good, some bad. People are entitled to their opinion,” Leechburg football coach Mark George said.

“One thing is for sure: This isn't just about football. That's what people are saying. I don't think we'll see any less competition (football-wise) than we see in the (WPIAL Class A) Eastern Conference.”

It might seem like the trap door being pulled to teams that have shown they could compete in District 7.

The softball team is a perennial contender. It has won three WPIAL titles (1991, '92 and '95) and has made the WPIAL playoffs 26 consecutive years.

“I don't think it's going to be an easy move for any teams,” Leechburg softball coach Jim Oberdorf said. “Some teams will be as small as us, and some will be bigger. One thing's for sure: It will be tough.

“But we feel like our team can compete with anybody. In our section, you usually have two or three good teams, and the rest aren't up to par yet. I don't have real strong feelings either way.”

Reesman also is a standout on the softball team.

“I feel like we can compete in the WPIAL, softball-wise,” Reesman said. “Football and basketball get smacked around a little.

“You hear a lot of opinions floating around. Most people here are for it.”

A key argument for the move, cited by the Leechburg School Board, is related to an “increasing number of private and parochial schools that are joining the WPIAL.”

There are no such schools in the Heritage Conference.

Leechburg's boys basketball team wrote a fairy-tale chapter in Blue Devils lore when it won a WPIAL championship in 2007.

Coach Damian Davies doesn't think the move will diminish the title, necessarily, but, “The way Single-A basketball is being run, it will be seen as the high-water mark for rural, public school basketball,” Davies said.

Davies points out the list of champions since Leechburg's title: Serra Catholic, Sewickley Academy (twice), Vincentian (twice) and Lincoln Park.

Davies said the Heritage is a “community-based” league and seems almost tailor-made for the Blue Devils.

“All programs will be playing the same teams, uniting the sports teams within the Leechburg community,” Davies said.

“This creates great rivalries and community connections.”

Davies said when he played at Freeport, the basketball team was in WPIAL Class AAA and football was in Class AA.

“The result is students, athletes (and) community become isolated within their sport,” Davies said. “Even in our school, the sections keep changing and the teams are almost all different amongst the sports. The vanguards of our schools' unanimous move to the Heritage is all about communities enjoying their connections to one another and building strong student citizens.”

Leechburg's football team hasn't had a winning season since 1991. George said his goals remain the same: improve numbers, get better on the field and increase interest in the program — lengthy road trips to Indiana County and beyond notwithstanding.

“As long as they let me stay here and coach, we're going to improve and make strides,” he said. “Wherever I'm told to play games, that's where I'll go. If they say we're joining the AFC North, then that's where we'll go.”

As for the much-maligned road trips that await — some opponents will be more than 50 miles away — George leans on the fact that his team has logged miles in the past.

“We've gone to Shenango for a scrimmage and to Union for a game,” he said. “It's an hour and 15 minutes to those places — longer in a bus.

“You don't want to lose local rivals, but we don't have the rivals we used to have. It's not about where we're playing, it's about myself and my coaches making us better. That's how you build tradition — no matter where you play.”

District 6 still has to officially accept Leechburg, which should be a formality. A PIAA official said Leechburg's move most likely will be on the board agenda for the May 22-23 meeting.

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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