Once-proud programs in Jeannette, Monessen fall on hard times

Saturday, August 21, 2021 | 6:01 AM

Jeannette and Monessen have a lot in common.

They are small towns that are getting smaller. Both have seen a slow but steady decline in population since the turn of the century.

Industrial growth has dwindled, and change has been met with a stiff arm as they forge ahead with an old-school approach.

The towns’ high schools also share similarities, like this one: They are fighting a decline in football participation — albeit for different reasons.

Proud Class A programs that began in the early 1900s and have hundreds of wins, dozens of playoff trips and multiple WPIAL championships between them, they could be facing an uphill battle with undermanned teams this fall.

Jayhawks down

Jeannette’s case has become the talk of the WPIAL as the program with the most wins in league history (766) — the fifth-most in the state — tries to move on after losing at least eight transfers, most of whom were slated to start or play key roles.

It was like an antique piece of Jeannette Glass falling off the shelf and shattering into pieces.

The defending WPIAL champion Jayhawks, who finished runners-up in the state, saw around 20-25 players at summer workouts, a number that could dwindle as the regular season approaches.

And to think the team had nearly 50 players to start the 2017 season. Last year, it had around 35.

“Heck, in 2007 we had over 60 kids,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said.

The Jayhawks not being able to field a team seems like some kind of nasty prank to Hall and his staff. It’s unthinkable.

The defections are as baffling as they are disappointing. But the team is moving on with what it has, clenching the wheel tightly with a lead foot on the brakes.

“I still can’t fathom this,” Hall said. “It’s like I won’t believe it until I see them take the field.”

Hall said this will be his last season as coach. This will be his 13th season as head coach and 37th with the program.

He is 115-27 with two WPIAL titles and a PIAA championship.

“What is crazy is that all those kids that left were part of a WPIAL championship and PIAA runner-up,” Jeannette athletic director Adrian Batts said. “If they stay here, you know they’re going to have a chance to compete for a championship. They might not get that chance at other places. I don’t get it.”

Jeannette’s transfers included sophomore quarterback Brad Birch and senior receiver/defensive back Brett Birch to Gateway, senior Taishaun Jamison and juniors Ryan Kimmel and Jaydin Canady to Greensburg Central Catholic, junior Eli Binakonsky to Hempfield and junior Louis Callaway to Woodland Hills.

Another junior, Basil Wilson, moved to Texas.

Door-to-door salesman

Monessen, an 0-7 team last year that could not add to its 672 wins, was around the same number of players as Jeannette, but new coach Wade Brown doesn’t expect to see players quit.

“The only way I see us losing kids is through injuries, but we don’t want to see that happen,” Brown said. “The kids we have out are locked in. We’re going to stay on top of their grades. As coaches, we’re enthusiastic and the kids know we want to be here. They are earning our trust.”

Brown said Monessen was always a big game on the schedule when he played at Duquesne in the early 1990s. He coached youth football at Duquesne for 16 years, served as a middle school coach at South Allegheny and was a varsity assistant at West Mifflin.

“Football and basketball,” he said of the clashes with Monessen, “they were always some of our toughest competition. We want Monessen to rise to that level again.”

Rumors already have done their damage to the programs at Jeannette and Monessen. Talk of forfeits and shortened seasons — or no seasons at all — ramped up as the summer began.

But the teams believe they can hang in there.

“It’s really a one-day-at-a-time thing,” Hall said. “The kids here are really trying and putting in the time. They want to be here. We’re going to give it all we have until the end. I know I am not giving up on them.”

Monessen athletic director Gina Naccarato said the numbers during summer workouts show signs of improvement over last year.

“Coach Brown is doing the right thing, knocking on doors and trying to get kids to come out,” Naccarato said. “The problem with the small schools is when one or two kids get hurt, you can be in trouble. We’re taking it week by week.”

Last year, Monessen had to forfeit its last three games because it could only dress between 11 and 15 players.

Safety became the talking point, with inexperienced or overused players entering dangerous territory. They were one hit away from disaster.

Then-coach Shane Swope saw a rise in numbers early in the season but watched them dip substantially, which played a part in his departure.

“The first thing I did was go door to door to let the kids know I am here to turn the program around,” Brown said. “We still have some kids who didn’t come out yet, but they are thinking about it. I want the kids to be excited to hit the weight room.”

Comeback trail

This is not the first time the teams have had low roster numbers, and it surely won’t be the last. Schools have been through the same thing recently and came out on the other side with stories to tell and optimism for the future.

Take Avella, an opponent of Jeannette and Monessen in recent years. The Eagles had around 10 players several years back and even resorted to asking cheerleaders to play.

Northgate, Mapletown, Imani Christian, Springdale, Union and Carrick also have had problems with teens — not the age of the players, the total number of players on their teams — in recent years.

Vincentian and Cornell dropped programs because they lacked players, the latter resurfacing as part of a co-op with Nazareth Prep.

The last few years, Avella has changed schemes to fit slim personnel and filled gaps with out-of-position players.

The team rebounded to make the playoffs two years ago. It lost to Jeannette in the first round, 62-14.

“It’s a different mindset when you’re playing the numbers game every year,” Avella coach Ryan Cecchini said. “We protect our players in practice. We can’t do a lot of full-contact stuff because we don’t want to get anyone hurt.

“When you have an injury, you’re shuffling the deck. I’ve had my backup QB play guard and my guard move to fullback. It’s sink or swim.”

Avella had just 20 players over the summer, but Cecchini said a large freshmen class will help.

Mapletown is another program that has battled low numbers. Avella and Mapletown play each other twice a year to try to even out the odds.

Help wanted

Like Jeannette, Avella recruited band members to play.

Jeannette already has a half-dozen band members out this year to fill roster spots. Five of them never have played the sport before.

Batts half-jokingly said there might be a Bobby Boucher-type lurking in the pack.

Jeannette’s Nathan Moore is a 6-foot-1, 280-pound lineman — and the drum major.

“Those kids are splitting time between band camp and (football workouts),” Hall said. “Our older guys are helping the kids who haven’t played before. There is a lot of enthusiasm.”

Monessen also has a number of first timers set to don shoulder pads and take on the rigors of a season.

The team will be young with only one senior on the pre-camp roster.

“We have a kid who hasn’t played since eighth and ninth grade,” Brown said. “But he is working hard and could be our center. When you have kids like that, including some who have never played, that’s the purest form of football. They don’t have any bad habits. What you teach them is what they know.

“I love the process. You can’t skip any steps.”

Concussions, AAU/summer basketball and fall baseball have been used as scapegoats for football’s declining numbers, as athletes simply have more to do these days. Not to mention the growth of the 7-on-7 circuit, which has its advantages too.

Some coaches think the passing workouts help the game; others think the opposite.

One interesting thing about Brown is he did not schedule any 7-on-7 workouts this summer as he focuses on basics and team bonding.

“Maybe we’ll do that next year,” he said. “I want to get them to understand real football first.”

Trying times

Participation is down from the ground floor up at Jeannette and Monessen.

At the youth levels, both have ordered fewer uniforms this year because there are fewer players to wear them.

Jeannette has about 80 kids in its youth program, and Monessen is down to three teams from its usual five. One issue is Jeannette players face a few years of a gap after youth football because Jeannette doesn’t have a junior high or freshman team.

That has caused some to play for leagues outside of the district.

“I just want our kids to compete,” Hall said. “If we get blown out and they competed and gave their all, that’s all I can ask. Hey, they tried. I don’t believe in moral victories, but hey, they tried.

“The thing is this is Jeannette. We could have 12 kids out there, and they’d still expect us to win. I always wondered about the shoe being on the other foot. But now it’s on both feet.”

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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