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Florida native Conto adjusting to football at Karns City

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Karns City senior Matt Conto goes through a defensive back drill during practice on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012.

PIAA Class AA first round

Karns City (9-3) vs. Chestnut Ridge (6-5) 7 p.m. Friday, Clarion's Memorial Stadium

How they got here: Karns City defeated Kane, 33-27, in the District 9 title game. Chestnut Ridge beat Everett, 22-21, in the District 5 championship.

Winner plays: The winner of the WPIAL final, Aliquippa or Washington.

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 11:20 p.m.

Before he answered questions after practice Monday, Karns City senior Matt Conto preferred to head indoors to get away from the evening's chill.

The temperature outside wasn't that low — the mid-30s at worst. But the Florida native found it cold enough to want to chat elsewhere.

A dislike for fall and winter weather is one of the few ways Conto remains comparable to his kin from the Sunshine State.

Much has changed in Conto's life since he moved from the Orlando area to the Karns City School District — without his parents — for his junior year. And football, a sport synonymous with the Conto name in Gremlins country, helped shape him.

“I don't regret it one bit,” Conto said of his move, noting that he wants to attend a Western Pennsylvania-area university after graduation. “I wasn't doing too good in school down there.”

Life in the Orlando suburb of Windermere allowed Conto to meet many different people — his high school alone had a ninth- through 12th-grade enrollment of almost 5,000 kids, the senior said. But diversions abounded — not all of them good — and Conto welcomed a few.

When he arrived in Western Pennsylvania, a place he had visited for family gatherings and hunting trips occasionally throughout his childhood, Conto encountered a community where no act went unnoticed.

“Even before I came up, people knew I was coming, and it just surprised me,” he said. “You can't really get away with anything in town because everybody knows everything about you. And I like that; it's better to know people more in your town than to not know anybody.”

For the first year, he lived with his uncle, Ed, the football team's head coach. And he knew one thing for certain: His uncle wouldn't cut him slack on the field or away from it.

Ed Conto required his nephew to play at least two sports — Matt chose football and baseball. He also had the Floridian embrace the Western Pennsylvania countryside as he asked Conto to help clear brush, remove trees and do other forms of manual labor around a farm the coach acquired.

“Maybe that's why he's not with me now, and he's with my brother (Matt),” Ed Conto joked. “We worked him too much.”

Conto grew accustomed to the small-town life and the cooler temperatures.

“He was a wimp when it came to cold weather,” Ed Conto said. “He wasn't used to that. ... He's still a little bit of a Florida city boy.”

The one thing Conto thought he knew well even as a Floridian was football. But that, too, turned out to be different at Karns City.

“Down there, it's definitely speed,” Conto said. “And up here, it's more hard-hitting, grind-it-out football.”

His junior season frustrated him at times. He fought just to earn a starting spot at defensive back, and as a wide receiver, he rarely saw the ball in Karns City's run-heavy offense.

During the offseason, Conto fully committed to learning the Karns City way. He attended all of the team conditioning sessions and studied the schemes.

His dedication paid off, and as he earned starting spots on both sides of the ball. He led the Gremlins in regular-season receptions, played a huge part in winning the District 9 Class AA title (five catches for 44 yards and a key late-game interception) and will be one of many weapons to challenge Chestnut Ridge's secondary Friday at Clarion's Memorial Stadium in the first round of the PIAA playoffs.

“He's come a long way,” Ed Conto said. “We put a lot of pressure on him because he came in as a natural athlete, and he wanted to do things his own way. It's different playing for us. We try to strive for perfection, so we're all about the little things.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-543-1303.

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