Cambria Heights and Westmont Hilltop will play down one classification the next two football seasons, but representatives of each program believe winning in the the always tough Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference remains the key to success regardless of class.
“You still have to win games,” Westmont Hilltop Athletic Director Tom Callihan said. “It’s a double-edged sword. You have to win playing against schools that are much larger than us. But if we win, we get the bonus points.”
Westmont was winless in 10 games this past season, with its closest game a 36-35 shootout at Cambria Heights in Week 2.
“I think it’s business as usual,” Cambria Heights coach Jarrod Lewis said. “We’re still in the situation we’re in. A couple years ago when Single-A took 16 teams and Double-A took eight, it was more of an advantage (to be in Class A).”
Heights was 2-8 last season, but went 7-4 and reached the Class AA playoffs in 2012, ending a long postseason drought.
The PIAA released its realignment of the four classifications last month for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years.
The football classifications are based on boys enrollment in grades 9 to 11. Each class decreased in size by 10 to 15 from the previous two-year cycle. Those are: Class A (1 to 174 enrollment); Class AA (175-299); Class AAA (300-492) and Class AAAA (493-above).
Westmont Hilltop’s boys enrollment of 173 puts the Hilltoppers in Class A, only two below the last slot in AA.
Cambria Heights is at 169. The Highlanders previously had a co-op agreement with Harmony High School. When a co-op exists, the PIAA counts half of that school’s enrollment for a specific sport and applies that total to the equation.
“We had a co-op with Harmony but it had fallen off in numbers in recent years,” Cambria Heights Athletic Director Tom Boyle said. “We only had one student coming (to play), and we were counting half their student population which was making us Double-A.”
Boyle believes the trend probably will continue beyond the two-year cycle.
“It’s definitely long-term. Our class size has fallen off dramatically,” Boyle said. “It’s tough competing in the Laurel Highlands being a Single-A school, but other schools do it. We’ll buckle up the chin straps and see what happens.”
The Highlanders athletic director was quick to point out that Heights’ enrollment dropped but the football turnout remains strong at all levels. Unlike schools such as Rockwood, which dropped its program in 2013 due to low turnout and injuries, and Ferndale, which had to halt one game after halftime and forfeit the following week due to attrition, Boyle said Heights is on solid ground.
“Our numbers for our athletics are good,” Boyle said. “Our enrollment numbers have declined. Coach Lewis and his staff have done a fantastic job of keeping the numbers high as far as those coming out for football. We have solid numbers 7, 8, 9 through varsity. The program isn’t in trouble.”
Westmont and Heights have the two largest enrollments among 16 Class A schools in the Tribune-Democrat coverage area.
The list includes: Westmont Hilltop (173); Cambria Heights (169); Bishop McCort (148); North Star (142); Northern Cambria (139); Meyersdale (137 including co-op); United (136); Berlin Brothersvalley (126); Conemaugh Township (116); Shade (111 including co-op); Conemaugh Valley (104); Windber (104); Portage (83); Bishop Carroll (82); Blacklick Valley (82); and Ferndale Area (76).
There now are seven Class AA schools in the area: Bedford (255); Forest Hills (240); Chestnut Ridge (227); Central Cambria (224); Ligonier Valley (218); Penn Cambria (206); Richland (202).
Only Greater Johnstown (324) and Somerset Area (319) are in Class AAA, and both of those schools are closer to the minimum 300 than the maximum enrollment of 492.
“The trend is that schools are getting smaller,” Callihan said. “At Westmont, we’ve been pretty fortunate to stay relatively the same across. I think this is just an anomaly for these two years.
“The cutoff was 174. We are at 173. I think for this two-year period our boys enrollment is low. I think this probably will only be for this two-year cycle.”
Heights and Westmont join Bishop Carroll, Bishop Guilfoyle and Bishop McCort as Class A teams in the LHAC. They’ll play up against Johnstown and Somerset in AAA; and Bedford, Central Cambria, Forest Hills, Penn Cambria and Richland in AA.
“It benefits us in a way. We’ve seen the Single-A playoff system, where if you play in a bigger conference, it is an advantage,” Callihan said. “We can gain bonus points. We’re playing schools like Johnstown and Somerset. But you have to win.”
Lewis had similar thoughts.
“Both classes always have good, perennial powerhouses,” he said. “The only advantage is, if you beat a bigger school, you get more points. We always felt that getting in the playoffs is the reward. Anything can happen once you get there. I don’t care if it’s Single-A or Double-A, anything can happen.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.