Sure, there were no district champions for the first time in three years, and only a few teams made impacts in the state tournament. But every other step was a positive one in a league known for producing staunch competition year in and year out.
Three-time conference champion Ligonier Valley again set the standard, capping another 10-0 regular season with its third Appalachian Bowl victory in as many tries as the conference completed a 10-game sweep in a budding crossover rivalry with the WestPAC. Nine teams, some of which snapped multi-year postseason droughts, rode the coattails of their regular-season finale wins to the District 6 playoffs, with a pair — Ligonier Valley and United — falling just short in the Class 2A and Class A title games, respectively.
And most importantly, parity reigned supreme as those in the middle of the pack traded blows throughout the fall, ensuring a tight race in the final standings.
This year, as players and coaches agreed at the annual Heritage Conference-WestPAC football media day Friday at United High School, uncertainty should again be a theme in a battle for the top spot.
“Again, it looks like it’s going to be anybody can beat anybody on a certain night,” Penns Manor coach Bill Packer said. “It’s really hard to say. Someone is going to stick out, but I think it’s just going to be game to game. And hopefully the games are all close and it’s competitive.”
The target is firmly placed on the backs of the Ligonier Valley Rams, who return at least eight starters on both side of the ball as they aim for another shot at history. The Rams, currently in the midst of a record 28-game winning streak against conference opponents, can tie Blairsville for the longest streak of conference championships with four.
The Bobcats won four straight conference titles from 2002-05.
“We see ourselves as always fighting to stay on the top and trying to get that respect and trying win another conference championship,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “This is a big one for us. The eyes are on No. 4, because that ties us with us Blairsville for something that has never been done before. Because they won four in a row, and this our opportunity to do that.”
Northern Cambria followed in second last season with a 7-2 record against conference opponents, finishing just ahead of a logjam that saw five teams finish either one game above or below .500.
Homer-Center, which joined United and West Shamokin at 5-4, is among several programs looking to bridge a roster turnover, but the Wildcats bring plenty of experience into coach Greg Page’s 13th season at the helm.
“There are a lot of good teams this year, and hopefully we’ll be on top,” Homer-Center junior quarterback Ben Schmidt said. “We have a couple new running backs and we’ll have a couple new receivers that are looking pretty good. We’re a pretty young team, but they’ll have a lot of opportunities to showcase their skills.”
Continuity and familiarity will be key throughout as the conference returns all 10 head coaches for the first time in several years.
Mike Leasure enters his fourth season at the helm at Saltsburg. Northern Cambria’s Sam Shutty and Purchase Line’s Matt Falisec each set out on Year 3 with their programs now built in their own images. And second-year Marion Center coach Adam Rising returns after raising the expectations for the Stingers after just one season.
Though Marion Center graduated 13 seniors from last year’s team, the Stingers know they won’t be taking anyone by surprise after reaching the district playoffs for the first time since 2011.
“Last year was really fun. I really enjoyed my first year as a head coach,” Rising said. “But we have to take what we did last year and we have to work 10 times harder. We just have to be more committed to our football team and to each other.”
Internal challenges could also face other playoff programs.
After United graduated more than half of its roster after last season’s PIAA Class A state quarterfinal run — the longest run of any team in the conference — and lost quarterback Kyle Silk in a transfer to Ligonier Valley, the Lions will enter camp with just 16 players. But the Lions won’t be backing down any time soon.
“The biggest thing is the dedication that players had last year, they’re building off of that, the type of work ethic you have to have,” United coach Kevin Marabito said. “The concern is low numbers, and with 16, it’s going to be tough. We’re not expecting anyone to feel sorry for us. We’re just going to go week-to-week and just get healthy, but the kids’ attitudes have been great, and we’re just excited to get going.”
Rounding out the rest of the conference standings, Saltsburg and Purchase Line look to build off last year’s success as up-and-comers with the potential to take over, and Blairsville will aim to put a pair of difficult seasons in the past to return to the postseason.
As was a common opinion with the season just 20 days away, it could be anybody’s game.
“We started off slow last year, but by the end of season, we started catching back on,” Purchase Line senior linebacker Cullen Goncher said. “We’re going to keep rolling with that this year. We can win most of those games.”