Ligonier Valley’s foes must try to break through ‘Great Wall’

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Wednesday, October 30, 2019 | 5:40 PM


At a summer football camp in central Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia-area high school coach observed Ligonier Valley’s massive linemen, prompting an impulsive reaction.

“Tough to run on that team. It’s like facing The Great Wall of China,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said, repeating what he overheard Downingtown West coach Mike Milano say.

Likewise, opposing defenses face similar problems when attempting to stop the Rams offense, with its large front line. Ligonier Valley in the past four years has inflicted a 35-point mercy rule on all but one conference opponent (Purchase Line in 2016).

“Our coaches do a great job getting us ready. They pride themselves on being able to do some great things,” Ligonier Valley senior Michael Petrof said. “Our goal on defense is just to not let teams gain a yard, and we try to do that.”

Said Ligonier Valley running back Kyrie Miller, the school’s all-time leading rusher: “The offensive line really comes off the ball and they open holes wide. When they’re firing out like I know they can, it makes my job so much easier.”

Milano was so impressed with the size, strength and speed of Ligonier Valley’s top seven linemen, that he bestowed the “Great Wall” label on the group.

Months later, Ligonier Valley (10-0), a Class 2A team, begins its quest Friday night for a third District 6 championship in the past four years with a home game against Heritage Conference foe West Shamokin (5-5).

The Rams, as they’ve done in every game this season, overwhelmed the Wolves, 54-7, on Sept. 20 at Weller Field, where the two teams will face off again at 7 p.m.

“It was really important for us to get the No. 2 spot (in the District 6 rankings) and make sure we’re home for the first two rounds in the playoffs,” Beitel said. “You definitely don’t want to be on the road.”

The Rams, who beat Class A Portage, 58-6, in the annual Appalachian Bowl on Saturday at Penns Manor, trail only defending District 6 champion Richland in the Class 2A rankings.

Now, about those sizable gents on the front lines: They mix and match well on both sides of the ball, big and strong, seven players — six seniors and one sophomore — in the team’s regular rotation averaging 6-foot-3 and 268 pounds.

The senior trio of Petrof (Navy), Christian Jablonski (Lehigh) and Wylie Spiker (St. Francis, Pa.) are committed to Division I schools. Several others are considering Division II and III schools.

“I didn’t start playing football until my sophomore year,” Spiker said. “I always wanted to try it out, but I never went out until my parents told me if I wanted to do it that I should do it. If it wouldn’t have been for them, I probably never would have come out and done it.”

Spiker said he and Jablonski were at the same point — 150 pounds — when they decided to make a statement.

“We just ate a lot and lifted really heavy and ended up getting to where we are because of our drive and how bad we wanted it,” Spiker said. “The hard work paid off.”

So much so that Jablonski and Spiker landed scholarships to FCS schools.

“It’s just exciting to be a part of this,” Jablonski said. “I think we do a good job of being humble. But, you know, it’s kind of unheard of in this area to have the type of team we have. A lot of it goes back to our parents. I know every one of our parents, and they do a good job of keeping us humble. If we get out of line, they’ll fix that. Very old school. A lot of this is just from our roots.”

Following that decisive regular-season loss nearly six weeks ago to Ligonier Valley, West Shamokin coach Jon McCullough looked across the field at the Rams players, who were milling around the sidelines and near the front of the stands.

“We have a lot of respect for their program,” McCullough said. “It’s a program that we want to be like here some day, and we’re trying to get to that point.”

Never mind the skill players, past and present — Miller, quarterback Sam Sheeder and others are just the latest batch — how did Beitel assemble such an imposing “Great Wall” at Ligonier Valley, which has applied for WPIAL membership in all sports starting next season?

He says they are just part of the story. Specifically, the senior class has had the coach’s attention for a long time. He hopes their presence will help to cultivate similar classes to come.

“These seniors are an amazing story,” Beitel said. “In the regular season, they have not lost a football game in their entire high school careers. With the exception of the Guilfoyle runs, I don’t think anyone can say that. What these kids have done is really, really remarkable.”

District 6 Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic combined for a 59-1 record and three PIAA Class A championships from 2014-17. Ligonier Valley is a combined 49-3 during the past four years, the last loss coming to Richland a year ago in the District 6-2A championship game.

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