Small rosters impact Class A football teams Geibel, Avella
Ninety minutes before kickoff Saturday in Connellsville, Geibel's defensive starters hunkered down at the line of scrimmage for warmups.
At the shout of the word “Go!” from a coach, the defensive linemen and linebackers rushed forward, only to stop when they were met by … nobody. Coaches stood at center and in the backfield, representing a phantom offense. Of the two remaining Gators in uniform, one stood at the running back position while the other booted field goals through the uprights.
Such is life this season at Geibel, where low roster numbers, compounded by injuries, forced athletic director Shawn Holup to forfeit the first two games of the season. Coach Sean Benjamin, citing injury concerns, resigned before the opener.
The Gators lost their opener, 62-8, to fledgling Vincentian Academy. They lost, 34-6, to Mapletown in Week 4. And they fell to 0-5 on Saturday with a 59-6 loss to Avella.
“We had four kids transfer in the offseason, we've had four kids go down with concussions … the problem is just the numbers,” Holup said. “I credit the kids who have gone out because they give everything they have, playing both sides of the ball the entire way.”
If any team understands the Gators' predicament, it's their opponent Saturday.
Avella became the focus of a New York Times story in 2008, when injuries took the team's active roster down to 10 players. Cheerleading captain Anastasia Barr suited up to keep the team on the field, but Avella went 0-9 that season, one of five winless campaigns since 2004.
With Saturday's victory, however, the Eagles are 5-0 — their best start since 1994 — and in first place in the Tri-County South Conference.
“As the opposing team, you want to handle (a game like Saturday) right,” said Avella coach Ryan Cecchini, whose team went 0-9 last season. “You've been in that situation. Nobody wants to get embarrassed, and it has to be handled right. I think we handled it right.”
With low enrollment numbers — Avella has 150 male students in grades 9-12, while Geibel has just 60 — many smaller Class A schools find themselves struggling to find enough bodies to fill the roster.
“At bigger schools, the kids that are still on the fence about playing football can still join the team and just fill the sideline,” Avella athletic director Marc Kania said. “Whereas, if you're at Avella, if you're on the team, you're seeing the field. You've got to be 100 percent dedicated, or else the team might not be able to go on the field.”
Forfeits are a worst-case scenario for athletic directors, as a WPIAL rule says teams can be forced to sit out the next season if they can't field a full team.
Holup said he spoke to WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley before forfeiting the first two games and explained Geibel's injury predicament — the Gators were down to just 11 players. Instead of punishing Geibel, O'Malley agreed to take things on a week-to-week basis.
“We were very grateful of the fact that he did that,” Holup said, “because we knew those boys would come back.”
That doesn't mean the Gators are done dealing with injuries. Four soccer players joined the team, bringing the roster to 16 players, but three players sat out Saturday's game with injuries. Starting running back Martin Berish moved to the offensive line for the second half of Saturday's game, swapping his No. 14 jersey for No. 72.
And though Avella counts 23 players on its roster, the Eagles dressed just 18 for Saturday's game.
“In the small schools around here, sometimes you just have a decent running back, and after that, you don't really have a backup,” Kania said. “So imagine if your star running back or star linebacker or quarterback gets hurt. Then what do you do?”
Cecchini credits a full offseason of training, along with returning several starters, with the team's improvement. A move from the Black Hills Conference to the decidedly less-rugged Tri-County South has also helped.
Kania said Avella's success already has some students clamoring to join next year's team.
That success also gives Geibel something to hope for in the future.
“When you look at that, you know it's possible,” Holup said. “We knew (this year) was going to be a rebuilding process, (but) the kids are enthusiastic. They haven't gotten down on themselves, and that's all you can ask for.”
Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.