JOHNSTOWN — The Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference held its final 12-team high school football media day at Johnstown’s Trojan Stadium Wednesday evening.
The league will be expanding to 20 teams next season by absorbing all of the current Mountain League programs (except Hollidaysburg in football) and Bellwood-Antis.
“I loved the competition that we had,” Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic coach Justin Wheeler said. “I thought it was one of the best conferences in the state. Adding the Mountain League is going to be different, but getting the chance to play Bellwood and Tyrone every year, I think there are going to be some good matchups too there that we can build and rekindle some old rivalries and get a chance to really pack the stadiums Friday nights at some new places. We’re excited.”
The Marauders will be in a division with defending LHAC champion Central, Tyrone, Bellwood-Antis and Huntingdon.
“It looks like our schedule is going to completely change,” Wheeler said. “We’ll probably be playing seven new teams every year and only two or three from the old Laurel Highlands. This might be the last time we play some of these teams for eight or 10 years. We’ll get a chance to visit some of these schools one more time and hopefully play well the last time we do.”
Bishop Guilfoyle, last year’s PIAA Class 1A state champion, will open the season by hosting Central, which made the PIAA Class 3A semifinals last season, on Saturday, Aug. 27 at Mansion Park.
“This is the first we have played BG in years,” Central coach Dave Baker said. “You have to go back 20 years or so to when we have played them. We’d like to start a rivalry with all the Blair County schools that we can play. I like it. It’s less travel, and we’ll be playing teams that our players know their players better. We’ll be playing natural rivals.”
The Scarlet Dragons return quarterback Jeff Hoenstine, who set the state record with 57 touchdown passes last season.
“We have some linemen that we hope can play,” Baker said. “We have obviously a lot of receivers and a good quarterback, but we’re not sure of where our linemen are going to fit in and how they are going to do. We’ll have to get to work and find out.”
Central, which joined the LHAC last season, and Chestnut Ridge were the latest additions to the conference before next season’s infusions, and both programs experienced immediate success.
“We’re still kind of newbies in the league with this being our fifth year now,” Chestnut Ridge coach Max Shoemaker said. “For us, a lot of the teams coming into the Laurel Highlands are teams that we previously played. We have some familiarity five years and beyond with those teams. I look at it as an exciting time. We’re bringing one phase of the league to an end, but the opportunities in the future will be super.”
BG to 2A
For the first time under Wheeler, the Marauders will compete at the 2A level this season after being forced to move up due to the PIAA’s success factor.
While BG is disappointed it won’t be able to defend its 1A state title with many of the players from that team back, senior leaders like quarterback Karson Kiesewetter are looking forward to a new opportunity.
“I think we’re all pretty excited about it and think it’s going to be a fun challenge,” Kiesewetter said. “We have been hearing 1A isn’t this and isn’t that. Playing 2A, against what some say will be better teams, better competition in some aspects, could be a little more fun. We might get beat up a little bit more. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think we’re ready to accept the challenge and look forward to playoffs.”
Central Cambria’s Don Fyfe, Somerset’s Jeff Urban and Johnstown’s Antwaun Reed are the new coaches in the conference this season.
“So far, so good,” Fyfe said. “Everybody seemed to be excited about the new start. There have been no real surprises yet. Still trying to get everybody to summer workouts, but you’re never going to get 100 percent attendance anywhere you go. That was the only thing I wish we could have had better, but you have summer basketball and baseball going on. They aren’t just sitting at home.”
Fyfe knows he’s in for a challenge, not just this season but going forward.
“Last year coaching at McCort, I was just amazed at the ability of the kids in this conference,” Fyfe said. “Now you’re going to throw in another group of teams like Tyrone, and it’s only going to get better. The sky is the limit for the conference. Every year it seems like this conference has a team playing for a state title, and you have teams making playoff runs. The conference was already good, but what is coming in is going to make it even better.”