The trophy cases at Avella High School are filled with past accolades of athletic teams. The football program was once the pride of the small, rural town when the Eagles were a perennial powerhouse in the WPIAL. With participation on the football team steadily decreasing over the past 30 years, along with enrollment numbers, an annual search for players has been a necessity.
Ending a 37-year playoff drought last season boosted the overall morale for those involved with Avella’s football program, but Eagles head coach Ryan Cecchini is spending his spring doing the same thing he has the past three years - recruiting. It’s nothing new for Cecchini, who took over at Avella four years ago.
The Eagles’ program has been dealing with low participation numbers for decades, and while Avella reached the WPIAL Class A playoffs last fall, Cecchini is once again scouring the hallways for more players.
As of Friday, 20 players had signed up to play football for the Eagles in 2014. That is four players shy of the 2013 roster that broke the playoff drought, reaching the postseason with a 55-14 victory over Bentworth in the regular season finale. In contrast, Beth-Center, which plays in the same conference as Avella, fields a roster of 30-plus kids each year.
The Eagles lost in the first round of the WPIAL Class A playoffs, 36-7, to top-seeded Sto-Rox, finishing with a 6-4 record. They narrowly missed the playoffs the year before with a 6-3 overall record.
Following last season, there was talk that 2013 could be the last year of high school football at Avella or that the district could be forced into co-op with another school. Cecchini believes the Eagles have avoided either scenario.
“We’ve had several assemblies,” Cecchini said. “We’ve pulled some kids in who haven’t played in a while. We are going to be up against it every year. Enrollment at the whole school is down. We have dealt with this year after year at Avella. It’s nothing new.”
While letters were sent to parents in previous years, Cecchini and school administrators are turning to a famous alumnus to try to boost participation. Ralph Cindrich, a 1967 graduate who earned all-state honors and went on to play at Pitt before four seasons in the NFL, will speak at the high school today.
Cindrich, who has gained acclaim as a longtime sports agent, will talk with students about the advantages of playing high school football and what it can do to shape their future.
Cecchini is hoping that Cindrich’s reputation will carry weight with boys thinking about giving football a try.
“Someone from the school contacted (Cindrich),” Cecchini said. “He was more than willing to come out and he was going to be around the area this week. He is probably one of our most famous alumni and it will be good for the kids to hear from him. He wants to tell them about what they can gain from playing football in terms of leadership and what the sport can do for them.”
Prior to Avella’s winning season in 2012, the Eagles only won four games in the previous eight seasons, which included an 84-0 loss to Clairton. Having a coach who is an alumnus has helped restore a winning attitude at Avella.
So have some talented players.
Santino Paris, who will be one of seven seniors next season, threw for 1,246 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior after having 10 TD passes as a sophomore. College recruiters have shown interest and Cecchini believes that Paris and the rest of the seniors are perfect for a program looking to reclaim its place as one of the WPIAL’s best. Although filling out a roster will be step one in the Eagles’ goal for a lengthy playoff run.
“One winning season might be considered a fluke but two winning seasons means you are building something,” Cecchini said. “The student body realizes that. Our kids have impressed me so much these last few years with how they have responded to adversity and dug themselves out of everything.”
McGuffey senior Kendrick Reed, who played wide receiver for the Highlanders’ football team last fall, will continue his athletic and academic career at Division III Muskingum.
Reed is a perfect fit for the Fighting Muskies’ spread-option offense after playing under McGuffey head coach Ed Dalton, who runs a similar offensive scheme.
Muskingum opens the 2014 season Sept. 14 at Waynesburg University.
Big Macs lacrosse
The Canon-McMillan boys lacrosse team advanced to the WPIAL Division II semifinals with a 7-3 victory over Mars Thursday.
The Big Macs reached the playoffs for the first time in program history and face top-seeded Quaker Valley today at North Allegheny (7:45 p.m.). With a victory, Canon-McMillan would advance to the WPIAL title game Friday at Highmark Stadium.