×

Laurel Highlands unveils section plan

By Michael Boytim

mboytim@altoonamirror.com

The Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference unveiled its detailed plan for the expansion of the league in the 2023-2024 school year Friday afternoon, and many of the high school sports rivalries in Blair County are set to receive a boost.

In high school football, the conference will be divided into four sections including “East 1” which is made up of Blair County schools Central, Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic, Bellwood-Antis and Tyrone along with Huntingdon. Teams will play everyone within their section each football season, three of the five teams from the second part of the region, in Blair County’s case, “East 2,” which is made up of Bald Eagle Area, Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellefonte, Penns Valley and Clearfield.

In addition to those seven games, teams in “East 1” will play one team from “West 1,” which includes Somerset, Westmont Hilltop, Richland, Johnstown and Bishop McCort and one team from “West 2,” which is made up of Penn Cambria, Bedford, Chestnut Ridge, Central Cambria and Forest Hills.

Following the nine-game regular season, the East teams will be ranked No. 1 through No. 10, as will the West teams, and they will play each other in Week 10, including the top two teams in the East and West playing for the league championship. When possible, the league will attempt to avoid rematches in the final week, except for in the title game.

“The member schools of the LHAC had a goal of playing most of the schedules regionally to keep rivalries and minimize travel, while allowing some crossover to incorporate games against as many teams as possible in the league,” LHAC executive director Scott Close said. “I think the group did an excellent job of balancing the two objectives. The amount of cooperation and sharing of ideas that occurred during this process makes me extremely excited over the future of the expanded league.”

All-LHAC in football

One major change to the early plans of the league is that teams will not be permitted to schedule non-conference high school football games. Originally, a “bye” week was planned to be built into the schedule to allow for traditional rivalries outside the conference to continue.

“If we would have had a non-conference game, I wanted to continue to play Juniata Valley,” Bellwood-Antis athletic director Charlie Burch said. “I will be scheduling them in as many sports as possible, but for now, our football rivalry comes to an end this fall.”

The change, which came about in part due to Somerset County schools Meyersdale, North Star, Berlin Brothersvalley, Windber and Conemaugh Township opting not to join the expanded LHAC after originally gaining board approval to do so, also had a major impact on Hollidaysburg — which was accepted into the new LHAC in every sport except football.

Originally, the Golden Tigers were going to be able to schedule teams in the LHAC during those teams’ “bye” week, but that will no longer be an option.

“We were going to get in a good situation in the initial plan until the five Somerset County teams decided to go to the (Inter-County Conference) and the Heritage and not join,” Hollidaysburg athletic director and football coach Homer DeLattre said. “That put an even number of 20 teams in for football which sort of defeated that thought that we could get some games. It’s unfortunate, but in the overall scheme of things, for our athletic programs, it’s the right decision. We will have to find two games for the second year in the cycle, because we lose our Tyrone game and Bellefonte game in 2023.”

Bishop Carroll Catholic, the other school in the LHAC that is active in the conference in most sports except football, would also be left out of the current plan if it reactivates its program.

“You never know,” DeLattre said. “You might get consolidations down the road. You might get other teams that want to come in. Bishop Carroll might add football again. This is just for that next two-year cycle, and then you don’t know what will happen down the road. Hopefully it comes around where we can get some games.”

Burch said he was under the impression that there could be flexibility.

“The sections are not set in stone,” Burch said. “They will likely evolve over time as the new LHAC figures out what is best. Bellwood-Antis’ goal is to compete and win LHAC section and overall titles, and if we don’t always reach our goals, we will be battle-tested for the District 6 and PIAA playoffs.”

SUBHED: Non-football sports

In most sports, including varsity boys and girls basketball, the league will be divided into two sections, West and East, with 11 schools each.

The East will include Central, Huntingdon, Bishop Guilfoyle, Bellwood-Antis, Tyrone, Bald Eagle Area, Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellefonte, Penns Valley, Clearfield and Hollidaysburg. The West features Somerset, Westmont Hilltop, Richland, Johnstown, Bishop McCort, Penn Cambria, Bedford, Chestnut Ridge, Central Cambria, Forest Hills and Bishop Carroll.

In the 22-game basketball season, there will be 14 games within a section in basketball with each team playing once and playing four teams twice. In addition, there will be four crossover games, two home and two away, pitting East vs. West teams. That leaves four open slots for tournaments or non-league games.

“I think revenue-wise, it’s going to be great for us,” DeLattre said. “Our kids love to compete against local teams, and we’ll still be able to play Altoona in every sport, which really helps. It helps fans, communities and certainly helps with travel. That’s a big thing with budget crunches.”

The top two teams in each section will make the semifinals and play for a championship.

“If you look at this league, in almost every sport from top to bottom, it is going to be a very competitive, solid league,” Tyrone athletic director and girls basketball coach Luke Rhoades said. “It’s going to be exciting for the kids to play playoff-level competition athletics all season and compete in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference championships. All of that is going to prepare you for the actual District 6 playoffs. I was really excited after our last meeting when I saw the proposals that were put together, and I think all our coaches are going to be excited too.”

Girls volleyball will be played with the same sections, and the top two teams in each section will meet for a championship. Baseball and softball are the same but with no championship games.

In girls and boys soccer, the West will not include Bishop McCort — which is in a co-op with Bishop Carroll — and the East won’t have Bellwood-Antis — which is in a co-op with Tyrone. The top teams in each section will play in a championship game.

Girls tennis has seven teams in each section. The West will be Somerset, Westmont Hilltop, Richland, Bishop McCort, Bedford, Chestnut Ridge and Forest Hills, and the East will be Huntingdon, Bishop Guilfoyle, Tyrone, Clearfield, Hollidaysburg, Central Cambria and Central. The East and West winners will play for a championship. Boys tennis has five teams in each section with the West being made up of Somerset, Westmont Hilltop, Richland, Bishop McCort and Bedford, and the East including Huntingdon, Bishop Guilfoyle, Tyrone, Clearfield and Hollidaysburg.

Swimming will be just one section including Bellefonte, Penns Valley, Central Cambria, Somerset, Hollidaysburg, Tyrone, Huntingdon, Clearfield, Westmont Hilltop and Richland. Each team will swim against the other once and the top team will be crowned LHAC champion.

“We’re looking forward to it, and I think it’s a good thing,” Bishop Guilfoyle athletic director Joe Landolfi said. “It will build local rivalries and local interest, not just with the teams, but the students and communities. I think it’s great.”

SUBHED: Three-section sports

Four sports, varsity wrestling, cross country, golf and track and field will be split into three sections.

In wrestling, Section 1 will include Somerset, Westmont Hilltop, Richland, Johnstown, Bishop McCort, Central Cambria and Forest Hills. Section 2 will feature Bedford, Chestnut Ridge, Hollidaysburg, Penn Cambria, Central, Tyrone and Bellwood-Antis, and Section 3 will be made up of Clearfield, Bald Eagle Area, Penns Valley, Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellefonte and Huntingdon.

Each team in each section will wrestle all the other teams in that section and section champions will be crowned. There will be an individual tournament as well, possibly following the Christmas break, to crown champions and a LHAC team champion.

Track and field sections will be Somerset, Westmont Hilltop, Richland, Bishop McCort, Bedford, Chestnut Ridge and Johnstown in the first, Central Cambria, Penn Cambria, Central, Bishop Carroll, Forest Hills, Hollidaysburg and Bishop Guilfoyle in the second and Tyrone, Bald Eagle Area, Penns Valley, Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellefonte, Huntingdon, Bellwood-Antis and Clearfield in the third. The cross country sections will be the same without Johnstown, Bishop Guilfoyle and Huntingdon.

Track and field and cross country championships will be held at the end of each season.

The LHAC will also be making a major change to its golf schedule as the league will be shifting back to 18-hole competitions after changing to nine-hole matches in recent years.

Section 1 will include Somerset, Westmont Hilltop, Richland, Bishop McCort, Forest Hills, Bedford and Chestnut Ridge. Section 2 will be Central Cambria, Bishop Guilfoyle, Penn Cambria, Central, Tyrone, Bellwood-Antis and Bishop Carroll. The third section will be Clearfield, Bald Eagle Area, Penns Valley, Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellefonte, Huntingdon and Hollidaysburg. A tournament will be held at the end of the season to crown an individual and team champion.

SUBHED: Stability important

The LHAC expansion means the Mountain League will cease to exist following the 2022-2023 school year as all of its current members will shift to the new league.

“With the Mountain League, there was always concern about what if one team leaves?” DeLattre said. “The league would be defunct. I think all the athletic directors in the Mountain League knew that stability was the concern about that league. This gives us much more stability and a great local league. If you look at the 22 teams in this league, year in and year out there’s teams making state playoff runs. I think it really helps in all aspects. There’s going to be some great league championships. It’s cool to see this come together.”

With many schools entering into co-ops in certain sports and others like Blairsville and Saltsburg consolidating into River Valley, a large league was something many athletic directors were looking for to guard against an uncertain future.

“I don’t know about the Laurel Highlands schools, because they are relatively bigger schools, but some of the surrounding school districts, I don’t have any doubt that they are going to consolidate at some point in time,” Landolfi said. “Not next year or the year after, but some of these little schools are going to have to. The bigger the league, the easier it is to absorb co-ops, school district consolidation and the things that impact athletics outside of our control.”

SUBHED: Staying local

One of the biggest selling points of the expansion was less travel for the schools involved.

“We’re excited to play the local teams,” Kuster said. “I think it will draw large crowds, and I think it’s good for all of those sports. It will be great for the community, and from a transportation standpoint, a large majority of us are struggling with busing needs, and that will hopefully alleviate some of that burden playing so close.”

Some of the Blair County schools have not played each other in decades in some sports. This league will change that.

“Playing BG and Central renews great rivalries from years ago,” Burch said. “We played both of them off-and-on for many years. It brings some really good games with heavy fan interest right here to Blair County, and of course we’ll continue our rivalry with Tyrone. We’ll have to wait and see if the Backyard Brawl continues to be the season opener or falls later in the season.”

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *
   

COMMENTS

Starting at $4.39/week.

Subscribe Today