The move of Leechburg High School’s athletic program to the Heritage Conference is set, save for a few i’s to dot and t’s to cross, the conference says.
Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, the addition will bring to a close an awkward period during which the league had an uneven number of members, and it should set the conference up for the future, barring any unforeseen developments.
“We will accept them and the WPIAL has released them,” Heritage Conference secretary John Bomboy said. “I think at this point it’s just a formality until District 6 and the PIAA give their stamp of approval.”
The conference was in a bind the summer of 2010, when Laurel Valley closed in a merger with Ligonier Valley.
Since then, the league has played with nine members — Blairsville, Homer-Center, Ligonier Valley, Marion Center, Northern Cambria, Penns Manor, Purchase Line, Saltsburg and United — and will do so for the 2013-14 school year, as well.
The 10-member setup, which the conference had since its inception for the 2000-01 season, was perfect for a closed schedule in the nine-week Class A football season. Eight of the nine current member schools have Class A football programs.
“I think we’re set here with 10,” Bomboy said. “Any expansion beyond that I’m sure would involve an even number of teams, but I don’t see that on the horizon. I think 10 is a nice, workable number. That’s what we worked with the first 10 years of the conference.”
The conference had previously had discussions with other schools, namely West Shamokin. It had invited Leechburg twice previously, though the southern Armstrong County school faced resistance from the WPIAL.
“We were in the middle of the two-year cycle, and the WPIAL was reluctant to let us go,” said Leechburg High School principal Matthew Kruluts. “So this time, we’re doing it now so that at the start of the next cycle we’ll be released from the WPIAL. … The letter’s in the mail now to District 6 asking for us to be accepted.”
Since 2010, Heritage Conference schools have had to fill an open date where Laurel Valley would have been in their football schedules. It was especially difficult with short notice the first year, forcing several schools to face out-of-state or -area teams in one-sided, poorly-fit matchups.
In 2012, District 6 cut its Class A playoff field from 16 to eight teams, leaving a 10th week of regular-season play. It added another open date to the Heritage schedules, but also plenty of other district foes to fill the Week 10 slots.
“It will guarantee us our nine games within our league, and we’ll still have to fill that 10th spot,” Bomboy said.
“It solidifies things when you’ve got the bulk of your schedule made up within your own conference. It saves you from year-in and year-out trying to find another opponent and trying to fit into their schedule.”
Football will be the most obviously affected sport but the move wasn’t made with strictly the gridiron in mind.
“We were looking for someone with full membership to come in all our sports and activities and academic competitions,” Bomboy said, “because we had lost one school and adding another just fills that slot and rounds us out to where we were a couple years ago.”
A WPIAL member since 1919, Leechburg sponsors teams in football, baseball, boys’ and girls’ basketball, girls’ softball and volleyball and co-ed golf. The Heritage Conference holds competition in all those sports except golf, though several Heritage schools have golf teams that compete in the Inter-County Conference, and even hold a Heritage Conference championship tournament, as a subset of the Inter-County.
“Also, they have some academic competitions and other things the WPIAL doesn’t offer that are of great interest,” Kruluts said.
In the WPIAL, Leechburg found itself frequently playing against a lot of private schools. The situation apparently wore on school administration.
“It’s difficult for us to compete against so many private and Catholic schools that we feel can recruit players,” Kruluts said.
The Heritage Conference is made up of all public schools. Its formation, actually, stemmed from competition issues involving private schools in the league’s predecessor, the Appalachian Conference.
Leechburg will have some neighbors in the conference, like Saltsburg (19 miles away) and Blairsville (35), and some longer-distance foes, like Northern Cambria (59) and Marion Center (50), but the Blue Devils face travel issues in the WPIAL, as it is.
“There are definitely some schools that are going to be closer,” Kruluts said. “Some schools are definitely going to be farther away. But our basketball team goes and plays Geibel, on the other side of Connellsville. Our football team has gone down to play schools in the southern end of Washington County, almost in West Virginia. Every two years it changes. … With the Heritage we’ll be playing the same teams every year. It’s not like we have these rivalries where we play Freeport and Apollo-Ridge and get this district rivalry going every year, because we don’t play them every year.”