Just when it looked like things would work out for the Heritage Conference, the league was thrown another curveball.
In early October, conference officials were informed that the Western Pennsylvania Athletic Conference would be ending its agreement with the Heritage Conference after two years of playing crossover football games.
The leagues made a deal in 2011 to fill the open dates on each other’s football schedules through the 2013 season. Even through late August, it seemed the agreement was going to be renewed through 2015.
“It was a great fit for us,” said Cullen Stokes, United’s athletic director and the Heritage Conference’s secretary. “We’ve said it before: They’re close to us, and they’re close to us in size. So it worked out.”
But then, on Aug. 27, Rockwood announced it was canceling its season due to a lack of players. The Rockets were set to enter their first game of the year with just 11 players and decided it was a safety hazard. With Rockwood out through at least the 2015 season, the WestPAC was left with 10 teams. It decided to move to a closed, conference schedule, but with 10 weeks in the District 5 and 6 regular seasons, it is unclear what teams will do in that extra week.
The Heritage Conference used to have the luxury of a closed schedule, but Laurel Valley High School closed in 2010, leaving the league with just nine teams to fill a nine-week schedule.
“We received a letter back in October from them that said they weren’t going to be able to fulfill the requirements of the agreement with us,” Stokes said. “With Rockwood dropping out, they thought it was best for their league to move to a closed schedule. And it probably is best for them. We understand that.”
The Heritage Conference had a tough time filling open dates after Laurel Valley closed, but things got more difficult when District 6 implemented a rule prior to the 2012 season that requires its football teams to play a 10-game regular-season schedule. Teams then had to pick up a Week 10 game, despite already playing against a WestPAC team in their other open dates.
Now, with no WestPAC games to fill those open dates in Weeks 1 through 9, athletic directors are forced to find two non-conference games.
“Well, we’ve been working at it, and most schools have picked up another game already,” Stokes said. “Most schools already had a Week 10 matchup because we knew that date would be open. But when we found out the deal with the WestPAC was over, each school went looking for another game. We looked for options together as a league, but that didn’t work out because most teams already have their schedules filled. Some looked into District 9, and some of us will play St. Joseph’s, but most of us found a game already. I don’t think it’s ideal, but I don’t think we’re in a bad situation, either.”
St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy, in Boalsburg, was new to the PIAA this year. Since it has no league affiliation, it was easy for Heritage teams to pick up a game with the Wolves for next season.
“(United), for example, Week 2 was our open date, so we scheduled St. Joe’s for that week, and we were already to play Union out of District 9 in Week 10,” Stokes said. “That’s kind of how it was for most of us. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it, and you can’t blame them for doing something to better their league.”
The nine-team format in the Heritage Conference doesn’t cause as much of a scheduling problem in other sports because of the ability to schedule a game on pretty much any day of the week.
“It’s just hard in football because you only have one game a week, and they play on only one day,” Stokes said. “With basketball or something else, we kind of have free range to schedule it whenever we can get it in. But with only Friday nights available and the start of playoffs right away, you have to pretty much just find a team that has an open date the same as you.”
In May, a deal almost went through that would have brought Leechburg, of the WPIAL, to the Heritage Conference. It fell through after Leechburg parents and school officials started voicing their concerns.
“We still look at that and wish it would’ve worked out, but it didn’t, and we’ve moved on,” Stokes said.
The relationship between the WestPAC and Heritage isn’t tarnished over the end of the football agreement, and league officials hope that the two can unite in the future if and when another problem surfaces.
“We have to keep a working relationship with them in case something happens down the road — in any sport, not just football,” Stokes said. “We almost had to opt out of the deal on them when the Leechburg thing happened, so we can’t be upset about it. With them being so similar to us, they may need us, and we may need them for something. Who knows? But it’s nice to have a good relationship with them.”