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Rivalries fading away: Valley teams going separate ways

Valley rivals going separate ways

Friday, October 26, 2018

UPDATED OCT. 26 - An agreement was reached between the Canfield Local School District and the Poland Local School District to continue the athletic rivalry. A memorandum of Understanding was signed at Canfield High School on Oct. 26.

By Steve Ruman

It’s been a while since a high school football season has come and gone without Poland and Canfield meeting on the gridiron.

How long has it been?

Well, the last year these two teams didn’t play one another, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, a loaf of bread cost ten cents and the Pennsylvania Steagles finished one game behind the Washington Redskins in the Eastern Division of the eight-team NFL.

(Seriously, the Steagles. They were a merger of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers — the result of a lack of players due to World War II.)

The world has since drastically changed, but one tradition which began in 1944 has stood the test of time. Every October for the past 74 years, Poland and Canfield have squared off in what has become known as The Battle of 224.

Tonight at roughly 10 o’clock, the world changes a little more when the Bulldogs and Cardinals go their separate ways after meeting for the 75th consecutive season. The two teams will play tonight in Canfield, and are not scheduled to meet in 2019 or the foreseeable future.

The end of the series is the result of bitter feelings between the two school districts triggered by Poland’s exit from the All-American Conference. Poland and six other schools pulled out of the league to form the Northeast 8, leaving behind Canfield and Howland.

Poland leads the modern series 40-31-3. The two schools also played eight-man games sporadically beginning in 1921.

“As far as I am concerned, this is and always has been the best rivalry in Mahoning County,” said Canfield coach Mike Pavlansky. “It truly has always been one of those games where you can honestly say that you can throw records out the window. You could go into the game 8-1 or 1-8 and feel like you have the same chance, just because it is Canfield-Poland.

“This game is totally different than anything else on our schedule. Any high school football player is lucky if they can be a part of this type of rivalry at some point in their career.”

For various reasons, “this type of rivalry” is disappearing in the Mahoning Valley.

This year alone, three area rivalries which combine to span the course of more than 200 years will come to an end. Earlier this year Struthers and Campbell played for the 90th and final time in a series which dated back to 1925. Campbell school officials cited a declining enrollment and the need to seek a more competitively balanced schedule as the reason for ending the series.

Tonight, Liberty and Girard will meet for the final time in what has become known as The Battle of Belmont Avenue. The neighboring schools have regularly met for more than four decades. However, an open enrollment dispute — unrelated to football — led to Liberty school officials severing athletic ties with Girard.

In 2016, Crestview and Columbiana ended their rivalry — the result of the breakup of the Inter-Tri County League, and Crestview’s snub from the newly formed Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference.

“It’s always sad to see these rivalries end, they become such a part of our area’s sports culture,” said Struthers superintendent Pete Pirone Jr. “In our case, Struthers versus Campbell was all about two communities that were only separated by a river. All throughout the years, there were families on both sides of the rivalry.”

Pirone said he “grew up on the rivalry.” He served as a ball boy for the Wildcats during the ‘80s when his dad, Pete Pirone Sr. was the head coach. Pirone would go on to play for Struthers, and eventually coach the team himself.

Even though he never experienced a victory over Campbell during his playing career, Pirone said those matchups are still the most memorable of all.

“My senior year (1991), we had just beaten Girard, who was ranked No. 1 in the state,” Pirone recalled. “Next week we’re flying high going into Campbell. We were down in that game 20-0 before we realized it was Friday night. We eventually rallied to take the lead, but then lost at the end.

“Back then, it seemed like both schools were always playing for a league title or a playoff berth. And whether you won or lost, those games were the ones you remembered most.”

Pirone said that the rivalry was just as important to the adults as it was the players.

“These men all lived together, worked together,” Pirone said. “In the steel mills, this game meant bragging rights for a year.”

For now, the Steel Hat Trophy, a traveling trophy annually awarded to the Struthers-Campbell winner, will remain at Struthers High School. Pirone hopes that one day it can be put back into circulation.

“You never know, things are always changing and you don’t know what the enrollments will be like down the road. Hopefully we can one day renew the rivalry,” Pirone said.

Girard coach Pat Pearson has been a part of the Battle of Belmont Avenue his entire life. Pearson graduated from Girard in 1999 after playing for the Indians for four years. He has spent the last 10 years coaching against Liberty, either as an assistant or head coach.

“Every time Girard and Liberty get together, you know it’s going to be a war, you know it’s going to be an extremely hard-fought game,” Pearson said. “These are two programs with a lot of tradition. We’re bitter rivals, but there has always been a lot of respect for the opponent on both sides.

“For the two communities involved, this was always an event as much as it was a football game.”

Pearson is hopeful that two sides can iron out their differences and renew the series at some point.

“As a player and coach, I feel blessed to have been able to experience the rivalry,” he said. “I hope that in the future my own children can be a part of Girard versus Liberty.”

Austintown Fitch coach Phil Annarella believes that the ever-changing population shifts and the inability to maintain conferences on a long-term basis will make it difficult for schools to establish long-term rivalries in the future.

“You look at how things are today, conferences come and go within a few years, there are so many tiers within one conference, schedules are always changing from year to year,” Annarella said. “In our case, Fitch is the only Division I school. You have Boardman and Harding in Division II, and then so many smaller-level schools.

“I think we’ve seen the best of it in terms of established rivalries. There is just too much change.”

Annarella was part of what many consider the most heated rivalry in Mahoning Valley history. For 22 years, the annual Warren Western Reserve–Warren G. Harding clash provided high-stakes drama throughout the city of Warren. Annarella coached at Reserve from 1981-89. He then became the Harding coach when the schools consolidated in 1990.

“It was intense, I mean, I really don’t know what word to use that would properly describe it,” Annarella said. “Unless you experienced it firsthand, you can’t appreciate the magnitude of that game. The tension was unreal, and I’m talking tension within the city of Warren. This was serious business with the adults.

“Men would show up at booster club meetings with their heads painted. I’d drive from the west side to the east side and I’d see men and women in Indian costumes with signs that said, ‘Scalp the Panthers.’ And, boy, did they mean it.”

Because of safety concerns, the annual season-ending clash was eventually moved to Saturday afternoon. Even when the two schools consolidated in 1990 (and won a state title under Annarella), the East Side-West Side tensions remained high.

“What should have been a unifying experience was tough in many ways,” Annarella said. “I would never want to experience that again. And through it all, the kids were great. The kids acted like adults and the adults acted like kids.”

Former Youngstown Chaney coach Ron Berdis was also part of a bygone rivalry. Berdis played at Chaney, then served as an assistant coach at the school for 10 years before taking over the program for 20 years. Every season, the top priority was to beat Fitch in the West Side Rivalry.

“That truly was a backyard rivalry,” Berdis said. “The only thing that separated those kids was Meridian Road. Same type of families, same type of hard-nosed kids, same work ethic. It was two separate school districts, but in reality it was a crosstown rivalry.”

For decades, the two teams played one another to open the season. Berdis said the outcome of the game often set the tone for the rest of the season.

“I don’t ever remember a having a bad season in a year that we beat Fitch,” Berdis said. “And if you lost that game, you had to do everything in your power to hold those kids together. That game meant the world to players on both sides.”

And while the competition was fierce, Berdis said there was “an enormous amount of respect” displayed by all the participants.

“You grow up just hating the other side as a team, but I look back now and boy did I establish a ton of lifelong [Fitch] friends because of that rivalry,” Berdis said.

Not all rivalries have been lost to the ever-changing world of high school athletics. On Nov. 18, 1905 Leetonia and Lisbon played to a 0-0 tie. The two schools have since played a total of 108 times (Lisbon leads the series 56-49-3), including every year since 1940.

The Spaghetti Bowl, as it has become known, is as strong as ever.

“It’s just a great rivalry, it’s really intense but at the same time a lot of fun for both communities,” said former Leetonia coach Matt Altomare. “I think what you have is two schools with little disparity in enrollment, the makeup of the towns are similar, and the series overall has been very competitive. The kids love the rivalry but they respect the opponent. It all makes for a great tradition.”

Matt’s father, Artie, also coached at Leetonia for 30 years. Matt grew up knowing the importance of beating Lisbon.

“As a waterboy, I knew what the rivalry meant to both towns,” Altomare said. “In this day and age it’s difficult to keep some of these old-time football traditions intact, so it’s great that this one has stood the test of time.”

Niles and Howland have met continuously every year since 1975. For a while, it looked as though this year’s 44th meeting might be the last. Like Poland and Canfield, the two schools didn’t see eye to eye with the breakup of the AAC. However, according to Niles coach Jim Parry “cooler heads prevailed,” and the two teams will now meet in the opening week of the season beginning in 2019.

“This has always been the game circled on Niles’ schedule,” said Parry, who also played for the Red Dragons. “Howland week, with the bonfire and everything else that goes with it, it’s fun,it’s what high school football should be about.”

Parry said that if anything, the rivalry has intensified over the years.

“Today, I think it’s even bigger,” Parry said. “The kids all know each other. Our players come into the film sessions telling us about Howland players that they’re familiar with.”

Ironically, moving Howland to the season opener now means that Niles will close with Girard — another rivalry game which dates back to 1898. The Dragons and Indians have played 76 times.

“It’s a unique situation, but we’re happy we can keep these games on the schedule,” Parry said.

Why not? In the ever-changing world of high school athletics, two rivals are better than none.