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FC has conference title in view

| Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003

FORD CITY - Under normal circumstances, three straight wins over Freeport, Burrell and Mars would be enough to lock up the Allegheny Conference championship.

This isn't a normal year.

Freeport (2-3-, 2-1) is back in the conference title hunt thanks in large part to victories over winless Mars (0-5, 0-3) and struggling North Catholic (1-4, 0-3), this season's bottom-feeders. Burrell (1-4, 1-2) has played decent defense, allowing only 108 points in five games, but has still been outscored by 25 points on the year.

The struggles of three perennial powerhouses have opened the door for several teams not normally used to the thick of the WPIAL Class AA playoff hunt. Deer Lakes (2-3, 2-1), a doormat for nearly a decade, has taken to the hard-working style of new head coach Denny Fedigan, who had tremendous success at North Catholic before changing schools prior to this season. Apollo-Ridge (3-0, 4-1), still a relative newcomer to a contending role despite conference titles in 2000 and 2001 and three consecutive WPIAL playoff berths, also has destiny in its own hands.

What that means is Ford City (4-1, 3-0), which shares the catbird seat in the Allegheny Conference with the Vikings, still has a lot of work to do in order to win the first title in school history.

“We've got some tough games coming up,” Ford City head coach John Bartolovic said. “I thought Deer Lakes, being a young team, would be a pretty good football teams and you just can't take anybody for granted because fumbles and mistakes really come back to haunt you.”

If the Sabers needs any reminder to avoid looking past Shady Side Academy (2-3, 1-2) Saturday afternoon, all they have to do is recall last season when Freeport, then undefeated and in first place in the conference, visited the winless Indians on a muddy day and came away with a humbling 21-14 defeat that may have been the biggest upset in the WPIAL a year ago.

To contain the Indians, Ford City will have to do the one thing that it has struggled with in the past - stopping the pass. Senior quarterback Brody Nasse threw for two touchdowns in Shady Side Academy's 19-13 loss to Apollo-Ridge last week but, on the season, the Sabers have surrendered 521 yards through the air, an average of 104.2 per game.

Ford City has also been very difficult to score on, allowing 61 points in five games, an average of 12.2 per game, including 23 in a win over Burrell and 25 in its only loss at Freedom.

Ford City, which has never opened conference play 4-0, will know the night before the game whether it stands alone atop the section standings. Apollo-Ridge will travel to Freeport for a key battle that could go a long way toward determining playoff berths.

The Vikings and Sabers each need two wins in their final four games to ensure a postseason slot and are slated to meet in the season's final week in what could be a game for the title. But a Yellowjackets victory could push Apollo-Ridge into a possible three-way tie for second with Freeport and Deer Lakes and make the following week's contest between the Yellowjackets and Lancers a battle for the third and final WPIAL postseason slot.

While the possibilities in the Allegheny Conference are still up in the air, things in the Greater Allegheny Conference are a bit more cut and dried; win two games out of five and make the playoffs. It's how Kittanning made it into the postseason a year ago and took eventual state champion Hopewell to overtime before falling in the first round.

This season, the Wildcats (2-3, 1-0) are using a similar formula to the one they mixed a year ago. They dropped their first three games to Ford City, Thomas Jefferson and Hopewell before blowing out Mount Pleasant in their exhibition finale. But instead of waiting until their second conference game for a victory, Kittanning knocked off Knoch in the opener to set the stage for a possible playoff-clinching win this week against 4-1 Highlands.

Leechburg (2-3, 1-2) has an even tougher task ahead. Barely in the playoff hunt in the Class A Eastern Conference, the Blue Devils will have to square off with first-place Clairton (5-0, 3-0), a team they traditionally struggle against.

The Bears, though, might be ripe for an upset after squeaking past Riverview (2-3, 1-2), a team Leechburg defeated handily, by a 14-7 margin last week.

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