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McKeesport to provide daunting challenge for Hempfield's 1st-year coach

| Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, 12:05 a.m.
Tribune-Review
New Hempfield Area Football Coach Rich Bowen. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
McKeesport coach Jim Ward kicks off his third season as the Tigers coach Friday against Hempfield. Ron Vezzani | For The Daily News
Tribune-Review
New Hempfield Area Football Coach Rich Bowen. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

Rich Bowen has a well-deserved reputation as a miracle worker.

As a senior at Serra Catholic, he quarterbacked the team to its first WPIAL football championship in 1981, then came back and coached the Eagles on two different occasions, leading them to the playoffs the first time and to their second WPIAL title and into their first Class A state final in 2007.

He's also been the architect of a couple of other significant turnarounds at Yough and Elizabeth Forward.

This year, however, he may be embarking on the toughest task of his coaching career. Not only will he be attempting what amounts to his fifth reclamation project, he will be doing it at Class AAAA Hempfield in one of the toughest conferences in the WPIAL.

“It's probably about the same, but this might be my biggest challenge because of the level of competition,” Bowen said. “Those other three schools were in Triple-A (Elizabeth-Forward), Double-A (Yough) and Single-A and now, being in Quad-A, there's not those off-weeks where you can get that winning going quicker. It's going be a bit more of a daunting task, but I'm pleased with the progress we're making.”

Bowen will find out just how far his Spartans have come after a 1-8 season that ended with five consecutive losses and the coaching ouster of former Pitt and NFL lineman Greg Meisner, who remained at the school as the athletic director. Because of the biennial WPIAL realignment and the consolidation of Class AAAA from four conferences to three, Hempfield will not have the opportunity to skate through a few relatively meaningless games before things get heavy and, instead, will jump right into the fray against a McKeesport team that is projected to be among the best in the WPIAL.

“Sometimes when you take programs over like this you would like to ease into the schedule, and I don't think there's any easy games in our conference,” Bowen said. “To open up with McKeesport, I know the reputation, I grew up there, my father was a head coach there and I know the tradition there, and you couldn't ask for anything better than that. We're going to know right away where we stand, and we've got to be ready to go Friday.”

It will be a chore to pull off an upset against a perennial playoff performer on its home field, especially considering that Hempfield is installing a brand new no-huddle spread offense against a Tigers defense that features one of the best linebackers in the WPIAL in West Virginia recruit Hodari Christian.

Perhaps the most difficult task for Bowen won't be on the field, but in lowering the expectations of the Hempfield fan base. Because of his reputation for quick turnarounds, there are whispers of the team contending for one of the conference's four postseason berths despite heavy competition from Gateway, McKeesport and defending-champion Penn-Trafford.

“Obviously, they expect us to win right now and so do I because every place we've gone into, we've been able to turn it around and quickly,” Bowen said. “But I'm smart enough to know there's going to be growing pains this first year and we're going to face some adversity, but I think if we keep working hard and practicing, we'll get some wins and we'll build off that.”

Keith Barnes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kbarnes@tribweb.com or 412-664-9161 ext. 1977.

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