As the high school football season opens Friday night, area leagues such as the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference, Heritage Conference and WestPAC enter a year of transition.
Meanwhile, the trend of co-ops among programs struggling with depth continues as United Valley brings together United and Blacklick Valley this season.
Conemaugh Valley/Ferndale will enter year three of a successful co-op, while Bishop McCort-Carroll Catholic, Conemaugh Township-Shade and River Valley (Blairsville-Saltsburg) will each enter year two.
Another different twist will see Westmont Hilltop play Friday night matches on a refurbished state-of-the-art pitch after playing Saturday afternoons for decades.
Three regional teams have new coaches: Antwuan Reed in Greater Johnstown, Don Fyfe in Central Cambria and Jeff Urban in Somerset.
With so many changes, it’s reassuring to see some of the region’s best passers returning to throw footballs to open receivers in 2022.
Conemaugh Township senior Tanner Shirley completed 124 of 233 passes last year for 2,002 yards, 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
He ranked second in the area in passing yards behind Richland graduate Kellan Stahl (2,777 yards).
In fact, passers from second to seventh in The Tribune-Democrat coverage area last season are all returning.
“This is the year of the quarterback,” Chestnut Ridge coach Max Shoemaker said. “There are quite a few exceptional quarterbacks scattered throughout the league.”
Flaggers who have finished near the top of the 2021 zone passing statistics include: Shirley; Chestnut Ridge junior Nate Whysong (1,679 yards); Berlin Brothersvalley junior Pace Prosser (1,619); Senior Catholic Bishop McCort Trystan Fornari (1,548); Penn Cambria senior Garrett Harrold (1,336); and junior North Star Connor Yoder (1,307).
“A lot of great talent”
The LHAC programs will also have to contend with two of the state’s top quarterbacks playing on teams outside of The Tribune-Democrat’s coverage area.
Senior center Jeff Hoenstine was the Class 3A Player of the Year after passing for 3,621 yards and 57 touchdowns on a 15-1 PIAA Semifinalist team.
“There’s a lot of great talent across the conference this year, especially at quarterback,” Hoenstine said during LHAC media day at Trojan Stadium in Greater Johnstown in July. “It’s great to see all these guys having success on the pitch.”
Senior Catholic Bishop Guilfoyle Karson Kiesewetter led the Marauders to the PIAA Class 1A title while throwing for 1,942 yards and rushing for 1,133 yards.
“The quarterbacks in the league this year are amazing,” Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic coach Justin Wheeler said at LHAC media day.
“It will definitely be an exciting season. It’s going to be full of offense and hopefully good defence.
“It was a great conference, but this year it’s going to be amazing.”
Chestnut Ridge’s Shoemaker agreed with Wheeler’s assessment of quarterbacks in the area.
“The Hoenstine boy is a game breaker,” Shoemaker said. “He can take a broken play and turn it into six points. His numbers speak for themselves with all the records he has broken.
“Garrett Harrold at Penn Cambria is a double threat, a run-pass threat. He throws a fantastic ball and is accurate and has a good body of receivers to complement him.
“You take the boy Kiesewetter from Bishop Guilfoyle, All-State Player of the Year. Another double threat. Take those three and there are many more, including, I’d like to think, our very own Nate Whysong.
This will be the last season of the current conference set up in the region.
Next year, the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference will grow from 12 teams to 22.
The conference will host in 2023-24 Bald Eagle Area, Bellefonte, Bellwood-Antis, Clearfield, Huntingdon, Penns Valley, Philipsburg-Osceola and Tyrone in all sports while adding Hollidaysburg in all sports except soccer.
Portage officially joined the Heritage Conference this season, and Conemaugh Township and the Conemaugh Valley will join next school year to bring Heritage to 12 teams.
Next season, the Inter-County Conference will add Somerset County Schools to Berlin Brothersvalley, Meyersdale, North Star and Windber.
With these additions, next year’s inter-county conference will have 21 schools: Berlin Brothersvalley, Meyersdale, North Star, Rockwood (non-soccer) and Windber locally; and current members Claysburg-Kimmel, Curwensville, Everett, Glendale, Fannett-Metal (non-football), Forbes Road (non-football), Juniata Valley, Moshannon Valley, McConnellsburg (non-football), Mount Union, Northern Bedford County , Southern Fulton (non-soccer), Southern Huntingdon, Tussey Mountain, West Branch and Williamsburg (non-soccer).
With the six teams currently in WestPAC joining other conferences, the league will dissolve into football. The WestPAC has its roots in the 2000 season following the breakup of the old Appalachian Conference.
Appalachia essentially dissolved and Legacy and WestPAC were formed.
Mike Mastovich is a sports journalist and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.