Ligonier Valley coach reflects on up-and-down football season

Monday, December 6, 2021 | 10:56 AM

Two years of football are in the books in Ligonier Valley’s return to the WPIAL after a 50-year run as a member of District 6, where the Rams had established themselves as a consistent contender for the PIAA playoffs.

Ligonier Valley reached the District 6 Class 2A championship game each year from 2016-19, winning two titles and advancing once each to the PIAA semifinal and quarterfinal rounds.

As a member of the Indiana County-based Heritage Conference, a majority of the Rams’ regular-season events in all sports were being contested against Class A schools, in part prompting the exit from District 6.

What’s more, Ligonier Valley had been the only Westmoreland County high school not to be playing in the WPIAL, but the school’s highly anticipated move to powerful District 7 (WPIAL) before the start of the 2020 season did not come without its skeptics.

“As long as I’m here and I’m the head coach,” said Roger Beitel, who completed his 18th season with the Rams football team, “we’re going to make sure we do everything in our power to keep the program where it is.”

A 4-3 record during a covid-19-interrupted campaign in 2020 was followed this season by an 8-3 mark that saw the Class 2A Rams win their first five games, including victories over Class 4A Indiana and Class 3A Elizabeth Forward, which went on to play in the WPIAL semifinals.

But a string of injuries contributed to back-to-back losses to a pair of other unbeatens, Steel Valley — the eventual top seed in the WPIAL Class 2A playoffs — and Serra Catholic by forfeit. Ligonier Valley recovered to qualify for the playoffs with victories in its final three regular-season games.

The Rams were sidelined by a 33-14 first-round loss to Beaver County’s South Side.

“The hardest thing for me is accepting three losses,” Beitel said. “But, do you know how many Westmoreland County coaches would love to be 8-3? With all the issues we had that affected our depth, we still wound up 8-3 and made it to the playoffs in the best athletic conference in Pennsylvania, playing against schools our size or bigger.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Beitel said young people have been greatly affected by the global pandemic, which he said has trickled down to high school activities, including athletics. His team’s roster this season basically was cut in half from that of its peak days in District 6.

“The world is bending over backwards to appease everyone by giving all the choices,” Beitel said. “To be truly successful, your choice is to get up, work hard and be disciplined.”

He scoffed at the notion of his team quitting after Steel Valley’s 40-0 rout of the Rams on Oct. 1.

“We heard some saying we didn’t want to lose (to Serra Catholic). Well, we did lose. It’s called a forfeit,” he said. “Anyone who knows me, anyone who’s been around our program knows how prideful I am about this stuff. We were in a bad way. We were at a crossroads. We had to stop the bleeding and get some guys healed.”

Among the injuries were to quarterback Hayden Sierocky (broken arm); tight end Miles Higgins (knee); safety Ryan Harbert (broken collarbone); running backs Nick Beitel (broken foot), Bruce Krieger (broken ankle), Kayden Faas (shoulder) and Grant Dowden (hip); and defensive lineman James Pleskovitch (undisclosed season-ending injury).

Several returned to the lineup by the end of the year, though Sierocky never played quarterback again, instead lining up at wide receiver. Junior varsity quarterback Broderick Schreyer took over the varsity offense for the final eight games, completing 52.5% of his passes.

“No one else in our conference plays JV games because they don’t have enough players,” Beitel said. “We only were able to play three JV games and were 2-1 in those games, which was nice because Broderick got three games of playing experience, and he was ready to go when Hayden got hurt.”

The Rams began the season with a 36-man roster, but in addition to the injured players, the team was hit with various non-covid related illnesses that at one point reduced the squad to just more than 20.

“For me, it probably was the lowest point I’ve had in my coaching career, a very difficult decision to make,” Beitel said, referring to the forfeit loss.

Beitel harkened back to a time when his teams would have fielded from approximately 50 to 60 players.

“Interest is down statewide,” he said. “Schools that don’t have enough players are combining with neighboring schools (as co-ops).

“Look at Jeannette, for example. Who would have ever thought Jeannette football would be in the shape they’re in now?”

The Class A Jayhawks, the winningest program in WPIAL history, while still a standalone program, were just 1-9 and outscored by an average of 35 points after losing a group of key players from the previous season’s WPIAL runner-up team to transfers, including quarterback Brad Birch, an Oregon recruit who played this year at Class 5A Gateway.

Longtime Jeannette coach Roy Hall also resigned following the season.

“I’ve been a bit naive, I guess, and thought the kids here would see what our guys before them had been doing,” Beitel said.

“I go all the way back to (former tight end) Alec Bloom, who went on to UConn and then went undrafted but took a shot with the Arizona Cardinals. I go back to (quarterback) Collin Smith, when he went to West Virginia. I go back to all the dudes we’ve had who’ve gone to Division I schools.”

Beitel said when the covid-19 pandemic hit in 2019, it affected everything, including high school sports, particularly at the smaller schools, because, as he explained, it relaxed the routines of students and student-athletes.

“I don’t make excuses,” he said, “but when we give more choices to kids, you become more average. If you want to become elite at something, you don’t have a lot of choices. If you want to be a great football player or great at anything, you can’t have a job where you’re going to make quote, end-quote ‘bank’ and then hang out with your buddies, hunt and ride your quad and expect to be successful.”

With 12 seniors on the varsity team this year, Beitel said Ligonier Valley relied on most of them as skill players.

“Next year, though, we’ll have zero juniors because there were no sophomores on this year’s team. It’s not something we didn’t know was a problem. I live here. We almost had to fold our youth football program.”

But he rejoiced at the mention of the Ligonier Valley junior high team’s 6-1-1 season.

“The only loss was to Belle Vernon,” Beitel said.

Regarding the inordinate number of long bus rides in the WPIAL, Beitel said some trips in District 6 were comparable, noting the locations of schools in northern Indiana County.

While there are no other Class 2A football programs in Westmoreland County, there are choices there for Class 3A competition.

“We have a lot of questions,” Beitel said. “Look at where we’re located in the county. We’re solidly in Class 2A. But in terms of rivalries, scheduling and geographics, if we would elect to play up to 3A, we would be playing such schools as Derry, Mt. Pleasant and Southmoreland.”

Perhaps even Yough, Elizabeth Forward or Valley.

“It’s not a concern of mine for travel on Friday nights, but it sure would make things more interesting. We’re talking about it. We’re talking about Class 3A.”


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