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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Southeastern Pennsylvania: Football Hotbed

I read this a few weeks ago in USA Today -- its list of the Top 25 HS football teams in the nation, and three of them Neshaminy, St. Joseph's Prep and North Penn are located in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

For the uninitiated, Philadelphia is surrounded by four counties -- Delaware, Chester, Montgomery and Bucks. Delaware County touches upon the Delaware and Maryland borders (you have to go through it from Philadelphia to get to Wilmington, Delaware), Chester is part of Philadelphia' tony western suburbs (as well as includes some great horse country), Montgomery is bifurcated by the Schuykill River (which is home to Philadelphia's famous Boathouse Row) and is both north (Abington, Cheltenham, Huntingdon Valley, Wilow Grove) and west (Lower Merion) of Philadelphia, and, finally, Bucks, which is in between Philadelphia and New Jersey (and abuts Northeast Philadelphia, a big residential part of the city).

Neshaminy is in what's called Lower Bucks County (it's about a ten-minute drive from the city limits of Philadelphia). You may recall an ESPN documentary a few years back on one-time perennial Top 25 team Central Bucks West, which is located in quaint, cute, funky Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Bucks County, which, by its name, is located in Central Bucks County. Neshaminy is the alma mater of former Penn State and NFL kickers Chris and Matt Bahr, won a state title a few years back and now is a perennial state title contender under head coach Mark Schmidt, as well as current Penn State freshman kicker Kevin Kelly. It's one of many rather large suburban Philadelphia school districts, and from what I've read Schmidt brings a level of intensity to his efforts that has elevated Neshaminy's overall performance (for what it's worth, the retirement of Mike Pettine, Sr., the coach of C.B. West, about five years ago helped put other "also-ran" schools in the same league on the map, as Pettine Sr.'s teams went about 325-15 during his tenure at C.B. West).

North Penn is in the same league as Neshaminy, the Suburban One League (which has four separate conferences based upon size of school and geography). It's a huge HS in Lansdale, Pennsylania, which is located in Montgomery County at the end of the R2 SEPTA train line that goes through closer bedroom communities into Philadelphia. It's also right down the road from Merck's West Point, Pennsylvania plant, an amazing facility in its own right (25-30 years ago, this used to be serious farm country). The coach that put North Penn on the map was Mike Pettine, Jr., and this team was featured in an ESPN documentary about five years ago. Pettine Jr. played for his father at C.B.West and then played DB at Virginia, where he graduated with a degree in economics. After coaching at another HS, he moved to North Penn (the players featured in the documentary went to play football at West Virginia, New Hampshire, Penn State and Pennsylvania, among other places). Two years ago, he left his North Penn program in the hands of his top assistant, Dick Beck, who played football for Temple at a time when the Owls might have won half their games and who played his HS ball for Pettine, Sr., Pettine, Jr. is now outside linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens.

Lastly, there's St. Joseph's Prep, the Jesuit HS in Philadelphia, a private Catholic high school located in the heart of North Philadelphia that always has been known for its outstanding academics. Major football programs and the Ivies flock to the Prep, as it's known. Among the Prep's alumni are Rich Gannon, the now-retired Raiders QB (his ability helped turn the son of one of my father's business partners, who was a pretty good football player in his own right, into a first-team all-Catholic wide receiver). Gil Brooks, a Prep alum who played his college football at Swarthmore, of all places, and whose day job is that of a partner in a major law firm, has helped continue the Prep's overall excellence. The Prep has one of the most loyal alumni groups in the City of Philadelphia, and their football alumni meet separately to support the program. Small school that plays with a huge heart, St. Joseph's Prep. Kids come to the Prep from Philadelphia, the four surrounding counties I mentioned above, and from Southern New Jersey. The reason is clear -- it excels in everything it does.

Football town, you say? Yes and no. The socioeconomic problems of the inter-city are such that the public high schools aren't turning out qualifying prospects the way they might have say three decades ago. The Catholic League used to turn out more, but their inter-city numbers have shrunk as the city's population has (about 2 million people lived in Philadelphia proper in 1970; now the population is about 1.5 million, approximately one third of which live at the poverty level or below). The Prep is a bastion, as are certain other Catholic high schools, and there are still certain pockets of good football in the public schools. The major transformation has been in the suburbs, where big high schools surrounding the city, such as Downingtown, North Penn, C.B. West, Neshaminy, among many others, have very strong programs, as do certain private schools, such as Penn Charter and Malvern Prep. The socioeconomics are different, as is the average education levels of the parents, and when you put those factors, good facilities and some good coaches together, you get kids who are attractive to major football programs.

Football area, you say? Overall, absolutely. The Phillies are in their first playoff hunt in twelve years, and the Eagles' season hasn't started yet. I occasionally listen during drive time home to Howard Eskin, the so-called King of Bling of Philadelphia Sports Talk and most likely the most listened to sports talker in the area, on WIP. Over the course of the past several days, I've kept an informal count of the calls about the Eagles (particularly Corey Simon, T.O. and whether they'll sign a big back or another WR, such as Peter Warrick or Peerless Price) and the Phillies, and there are at least four calls about the Eagles for every one about the Phillies, perhaps more.

Is there a correlation between playing HS football and rooting for the Eagles. Perhaps, but there are many people who don't look like they played any football and who look like they're not in shape to do much more than push a TV remote (and who also played Little League Baseball) who root for the Eagles than who play HS football today. Sure, I'm sure it helps the high schoolers that the local pro team is so good, but if you play football, you're making more than a surface commitment. You're making a commitment to getting hit. So I don't think that the Eagles have that direct an impact.

Communities do, parents do, good coaches do. At the HS level, baseball games have to wrestle with iffy spring weather, and while hoops are exciting, there are still games, not events (at least not until your team makes the playoffs). At the HS level, the games are events, full of pageantry and rituals, color guards and bands, and all of that can be quite alluring, as can the thrill of competition.

Whatever the reason, there are some good coaches and players in Southeastern Pennsylvania. So keep an eye out for them.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that there are some elite football programs in the Philly area, and that the Eagles dominate the mainstream consciousness here, but c'mon, at the grassroots level this is a hoops town.

The list of Philly basketball alumni far exceeds any list of football greats, and don't forget to compare the Big 5 vs. whatever it is that passes for college football in the region.

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