Help wanted signs for Avella football program

July 25, 2013

Most help wanted signs going up in the area ask for workers over the age of 18 with some kind of experience.

In Avella, there are help wanted signs of a different kind going up.

They read something like this: Help Wanted. Underclassmen for a football program. No experience necessary. Will train.

The Avella football program has spent the better part of the past decade struggling to keep its head above water in terms of participation. The battle could soon be reaching a tipping point.

The Avella School Board Athletic Committee drafted a letter last week to send out to the parents of its students outlining the dire straights in which the football program could find itself.

Though the program has enough players to compete this season – barring a rash of injuries – things aren’t certain for 2014 and beyond.

The reason?

While the Eagles have 20 players currently attending workouts for the upcoming season – a low number, but not atypical for small schools such as Avella – nine of those players are heading into their senior year.

With an Oct. 1 deadline looming for the school to inform the WPIAL if it will field a team in 2014 and 2015, things look bleak. The WPIAL does its classifications on two-year cycles and needs to know if the Eagles will be competing in 2014.

“The problem is that we have just one sophomore,” said Eagles head coach Ryan Cecchini. “That class, for whatever reason, just doesn’t participate much in any sports.”

At a small school such as Avella, where class sizes range in the 40s, low participation by one class can be a huge problem.

Cecchini and others are taking a proactive approach.

“I’ve been putting up signs and sending out letters across town,” said Cecchini, who was a former Avella standout. “We’re going to have an Aug. 1 late football signup. And on the first day of school, I’m going to give a speech to the student body and, hopefully, get a few more kids to come out.”

The Eagles have been a big story in recent years for a number of different reasons.

In 2008, the Eagles made national news when they used a cheerleader as a player after a rash of injuries left them without enough players to field a full team.

The Eagles continued to teeter on the edge of having enough players to field a roster the next few years and the losses continued to pile as Avella tried to stay afloat while competing in the rugged Black Hills Conference, which included PIAA powerhouse Clairton.

But in 2012, Cecchini’s second season, the Eagles moved to the Tri-County South, a conference with schools more in line with Avella in terms of enrollment.

The Eagles, who had not had a winning season since 1994 or made the playoffs since 1976, rattled off five consecutive victories to open the season.

The Eagles lost three of their final four games, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker, but the 6-3 record and a strong returning nucleus had many thinking the program had turned the corner.

“This has been coming for years,” admitted school board member Alex Paris, the father of Avella’s junior quarterback Santino Paris.

“What’s a shame is that it finally looked like we had things going the right way. With last year’s success, I was confident we would get more participation. But the size of our classes is just not there.”

If Avella were forced to drop its football program, it’s possible that current and future players could continue to compete in football through a co-op program with a neighboring school district. Avella currently co-ops with Burgettstown for its 7th and 8th grade football program.

But that wouldn’t solve all the issues.

“It’s not just the football program that’s affected,” said Paris. “The cheerleaders and band wouldn’t get to perform at football games. The community comes out to games. There’s no sport like football that brings everybody together.”

Cecchini’s fear is that once football is gone, it won’t be back.

“It’s probably the hardest sport to start up because of the cost of equipment and everything,” Cecchini said. “Once it’s gone, it’s tough to bring back.”

And for a school with a storied history in the sport such as Avella, losing the sport would be a blow.

“If you look back at Avella, our history is as good as any in the area,” Paris said. “Not in the recent history, but looking back, we’ve won WPIAL titles and sent players to major colleges and the NFL. You don’t want to lose that.”

Cecchini and others don’t want to think about the worst scenario. But reality has forced them to action.

“The best solution is that we hold these signups and get a bunch of kids to come out for the team,” Cecchini said.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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