Drop to Class 5A could be boost for football teams at Hempfield, Norwin

Sunday, January 2, 2022 | 4:04 PM

It was like a release valve was turned for Norwin and Hempfield when enrollment numbers showed the schools would drop to Class 5A for football.

That meant leaving the rigors of Class 6A, with a schedule that demands near perfection on a weekly basis just to be able to compete, for potentially a better fit with more like teams and less travel.

For Norwin and Hempfield, hanging with opponents and not getting blown out is like a win some weeks because of the depth of larger teams. The playoffs are often a pipe dream.

The move to 5A could be momentous for both programs, whose schools fall below the 558 mark for total number of boys.

Life could change, perhaps drastically, for two of Westmoreland County’s struggling programs. But nothing is guaranteed.

“Just because we are dropping a classification isn’t going to make it any easier,” Norwin athletic director Mike Burrell said. “WPIAL football is one of, if not the top, districts in the state. We had five out of six teams in the state finals and four out of the six champions, two of which we played this past season in Mt. Lebanon and Penn-Trafford.

“5A is one of the toughest classes, with perennial powers year in and year out.”

Since Class 6A became a thing in 2016, Norwin has made the WPIAL playoffs twice (2016, ‘17) and Hempfield once (‘16). Neither has posted a winning record in that time. Norwin is 20-39 (12-30 in conference), and Hempfield has a mark of 16-40 (8-32 in conference) as 6A members.

“Whether it be 6A or 5A, we are going to be competing against quality football programs,” Hempfield coach Mike Brown said. “Moving down to 5A isn’t going to magically make Hempfield a contender. We still need to get to work this offseason and improve in all aspects of the program.”

The game-changer for Norwin and Hempfield was a tweak in the way schools count vo-tech students. That changed enrollment figures for the schools and, ultimately, is the reason they are dropping. Only 10% of vo-tech students now are counted toward the total, per PIAA instruction.

“There are certainly a lot of questions yet to be answered,” said Hempfield athletic director Brandon Rapp, who used to work the same job at Norwin. “What we know is that we at Hempfield Area will be a 5A program for the next two years. Beyond that … who knows?

“What we don’t know is how the latest classification changes will impact other schools, not just 6A to 5A but 5A to 4A and so on.”

While the class landing spots for other area teams will change, some should remain the same. Penn-Trafford and Franklin Regional, for instance, still have 5A numbers.

Latrobe could move to 4A.

So think about the possibilities of a conference that would include Norwin, Hempfield, WPIAL and PIAA champion Penn-Trafford, and Franklin Regional, among others.

“One benefit I believe it may bring is the proximity of games, especially conference games,” Brown said. “Which is one reason why 6A was such a grind and especially the quality of each team we were facing.”

Burrell is on the WPIAL football steering committee, so he did not wish to share any thoughts on what conferences might look like. He did say, “I do anticipate some geographical matchups.”

While nothing is official until the PIAA and WPIAL announce new alignments for the new cycle, Class 6A football appears to be going from eight teams to five with Baldwin also dropping a class.

That would leave North Allegheny, Seneca Valley, Mt. Lebanon, Canon-McMillan and Central Catholic in the WPIAL’s largest class.

It remains to be seen what the WPIAL will do with the minuscule 6A conference.

Teams have until Jan. 5 to choose to play up.

“So really, we won’t know what the rest of our classification looks like or what others may look like until then,” Rapp said. “I think that is the time frame when things will get interesting. That is when the WPIAL will have to look at the data and decide what comes next. Do we stay with the traditional sections by classification, do they look at a potential regular season combination among different classes — or something else?”

Rapp said the WPIAL will try to do what is best for each school. Surveying schools has become a common method of engagement under executive directory Amy Scheuneman’s watch. That could play a role in the conference alignment and what to do with 6A.

“Oftentimes what is best for one school may not be what is best for another,” Rapp said. “And that is what makes their decisions so difficult to make. Traditionally, they have always solicited the memberships’ input and made the most informed decision, and I would expect the same this month.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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