WPIAL schools of all sizes deal with challenges of roster shortages
When Geibel forfeited its first two games this season because the Gators didn't have enough players, it brought into focus a troubling trend for WPIAL schools of all sizes.
High school football coaches in every classification worry about roster shortages and the problems they can cause.
“That was tough, to tell your kids that we're not going to be playing a game Friday night after preparing for eight or nine months,” said Frazier coach Mike Steeber, whose Commodores won their opener against Geibel by forfeit. “When it comes down to it, it's a game, and kids play because they want to have fun. I don't know too many go out there thinking about safety.”
Yet Sean Benjamin resigned as Geibel's coach before its Week 3 game against Vincentian — a first-year program which won, 62-8, after losing its first two games by a combined 105-26 — because the Gators had only 13 players.
Schools have found that there is safety — or, at least, a comfort zone — in numbers, no matter the classification. Then again, Clairton won the PIAA Class A title last year with 24 players, and Valley made the '91 WPIAL AAA final with 31.
That's especially true when it comes to depth. There is a common belief that the more players you have on your roster, the better you can practice. And good preparation can lead to great games.
“You're always holding your breath because your depth is always an issue,” said Elizabeth Forward coach Mike LeDonne, whose Class AAA Warriors (2-2) have only 40 varsity players, including 10 freshmen. “Is it a worry? I think all coaches have that worry. There's a reason kids are starters. They're one of the 11 best at the time.”
The greatest concern for coaches with roster shortages is the possibility of losing a multiple-position player.
“Then it affects both sides of the ball,” said Baldwin coach Jim Wehner, whose Quad-A Fighting Highlanders have 52 players but only eight seniors. “When you double platoon, if you lose one guy ,it's like losing three guys if he plays offense, defense and special teams.”
That's what worries Deer Lakes coach Todd Hazlett, whose Class AA team has 50 players but includes 18 freshmen. Seven Lancers start both ways, and senior receiver/defensive back Zack Burke also is the punter and returns kicks and punts.
“The number can be very misleading,” Hazlett said. “Probably the biggest challenge with having so much youth, when we're trying to emulate another team's offense, is there's not much to pull from. Our competition in practice is very limited. Our starters don't really have a great challenge. Even our kids say, ‘You feel like a hero Monday through Thursday, and then on Friday night, it's like, ‘Whoa!' It can not only be intimidating to the players, but sometimes as a coaching staff you think, ‘If we have one injury, our whole night can be ruined.' ”
It's even worse when one position is weakened by injuries: Latrobe has lost four starting offensive linemen this season. The Quad-A Wildcats started the season with 55 players — including 27 freshmen and sophomores — but dressed only 35 for Monday's practice.
“Last season, we would have had trouble finishing the season if we hadn't moved the freshmen up,” Latrobe coach Ray Reitz said. “They're pretty good players but, physically, they're overmatched. In Quad A, you have a big disparity from the low-level to the high-level schools, like North Allegheny.”
Elizabeth Forward's LeDonne understands that as well as anyone after two seasons at Clairton before taking over the Warriors. He saw 15 players leave the program last year but refused to allow any to return once this season started with a two-point loss to rival Thomas Jefferson.
“At Clairton, sometimes we had 28 dressed for whatever reason. All you need is 11, and you need some luck along the way to stay healthy,” LeDonne said. “You have to manipulate who you rotate in. I have three guys from the Clairton staff at EF. We're all used to the fact that, you know what, it would be nice to have 60 (players) and create competition and have an edge, but you have to get the most out of what you have.
“We have 40 of the right kids. It's evenly divided, but some of the freshmen aren't ready to go at this time. When you look at it like that, we have about 25 who can play varsity football. It's challenging, but I'm very proud of our kids.”
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.