This will be the 10th year for the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association East West All-Star game at Mansion Park, but, at Monday afternoon's Blair County Convention Center to tout this June's contest, there was almost a feeling as if it was starting over.
Since the event's inception in 2001, new college rules and other all-star games have presented challenges for East West organizers. Now, many of those organizers that have been there pretty much from the start, like Cheryl Ebersole and long-time game manager Kellie Goodman have parted ways, a result of the turnover in the staff at the Allegheny Mountain Convention and Visitors Bureau over the last few months.
When you factor in that there are no local players in this year's game - State College lineman Mike Laskowsky and Clearfield receiver Trey Campman are the only players from PIAA districts 6, 5 or 9 on the current roster, although that is subject to change - it's understandable if people like game director John Hayes might be a little bit anxious.
"Definitely having local players is a plus from the standpoint of promoting the game and bringing local attention to the game,'' Hayes said.
It'd be sensationalizing to call this a make-or-break year for the game. The East West has brought all-staters, future professionals and even some players that have gotten into the Super Bowl to Mansion Park. This year, Pennsylvania's all-time leading passer, Lancaster Catholic's Kyle Smith, is slated to play. Last year, Steelton-Highspire's Jeremiah Young, the state's all-time leading rusher, participated.
The game's established itself, as can be attested by Altoona Area School District public relations director Tom Bradley that he's already secured host families for 54 of the 68 players that will be coming in from all corners of the state. Young and Smith could have easily passed on the game, disappointed in being snubbed for the Big 33 Classic, but they accepted invites here.
"To get those kids,'' Hayes said, "speaks well of the game.''
For all that, it would be nice to see larger crowds. It's certainly an uphill battle in a lot of respects. It's not easy to establish a rivalry from scratch. During the heat of the summer, right after school has ended, families are on vacation, the Curve may have a game, there are a lot of other places vying for area dollars and time.
All-star games typically are not huge draws, but they can be. The Mirror Classic basketball games have done well at St. Francis, and, although I wasn't there in person, I've been told the Lezzer Lumber football game brought in a very good crowd last summer. Of course, those games are regional in scope and draw in not only the families of the players but many of the teammates and opponents, something not likely to happen when someone is driving from Allentown or the west side of Pittsburgh.
The game has to be largely carried on its star power. Over the years, that's become a more difficult pitch, because all-star games have been popping up all over - most recently, it's been the New Jersey vs. Northeast Classic at Rutgers - and taking players from games like the Big 33. That results in a trickle-up effect, as players from the East West are then called up to the Big 33.
Then, there was the NCAA decision to allow incoming football recruits to begin attending college during the summer sessions of their freshman years. While it hasn't had as huge a negative impact on the all-star games as it could have, it's still something that is a consideration, as players lose more and more of their summers in bids to avoid falling behind other players and teams.
Reportedly, Penn State recruit Shyquawn Pullium of Cathedral Prep was selected for this year's East West game but declined the invitation. He would have been one of the five most eagerly-watched players, if only for the fact that he was going to be a Nittany Lion.
"Right now, we find more kids than in the past that won't play, but, the percentage of the kids that are chosen [and accept] do stay with the game,'' Hayes said. "In the early years, we were looking for five or six kids the day of check-ins. That's not happening now.''
Marketing of the game is another test, at least, beyond the boundaries of central PA. That's been magnified by the departure of the likes of Goodman.
As former sports director at WTAJ, Goodman was intimately familiar with a number of athletic aspects, large and small, that helped in promotion of the game.
It's easy to take that for granted, but it becomes evident just how large of shoes she left behind when new AMCVB marketing manager Jennifer Fleck needed assistance with the pronunciation of "WPIAL'' in running down the list of West coach Dave Vestal's accomplishments at Monday's press conference. Goodman also was hoping to organize a reunion for the 10th anniversary of the game, something now in limbo because she's moved on to the Bedford County Chamber of Commerce.
Leaving the presser, Hayes remained optimistic. "You always are concerned,'' Hayes said, "but, when the game rolls around, things tend to work out.''
Hopefully, Hayes' confidence is well-founded.
Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.