By Michael Boytim
The road to Cumberland Valley just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Hershey did, and the PIAA’s decision to move the state championship football games 25 miles away to a District 3 high school disappointed many people in the Altoona and State College area that were hoping to have the games moved to a more central location.
“I don’t like it, because it centers the games in the southeastern sector of the state,” Tyrone coach John Franco said. “That makes it difficult for fans from the Erie area, and the western part of the state, which supplies quite a few of the teams. It’s there for one reason. It’s because the PIAA offices are right there in the Cumberland Valley area.”
Franco coached the Golden Eagles in two state championship games at Hersheypark Stadium, but his first time making the PIAA finals with Tyrone, the game was at Mansion Park in 1996.
“When they did it at Mansion, it was excellent,” Franco said. “Most coaches that I have talked to in the state, especially ones in the western sector, really like the Altoona venue, because it was an equal distance for everyone. It was an area where that was the only thing going on. Altoona did a tremendous job with it. They obviously have the knowledge to do it, and I was really hoping that if they did make a chance, we would get it coming back to Altoona.”
Altoona athletic director Phil Riccio and the AAHS district administration put together a competitive proposal to move the game back to Altoona for the next four years, but that proposal, along with one from the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau and Penn State, were denied by the PIAA at its meeting Wednesday in favor of one from Cumberland Valley.
“I thought the best venue was Altoona,” Franco said. “It would be great if it was State College, because that’s the geographical center of the state, but they obviously can’t do it there. You can’t do it at Beaver Stadium. It’s too big, and it just kills the atmosphere. They tried it in the late 80s, and it was really a disaster.”
Current Altoona football coach Vince Nedimyer Jr. and his Mountain Lions played at Cumberland Valley last season. Both teams are part of the Mid-Penn Commonwealth Division.
“The facility is nice, and other than Carlisle, they were one of the last fields that are grass,” Nedimyer said. “We have been hearing they are going to turf, but in terms of the facilities, the way it’s spread out, we have always enjoyed going down there to play. To be honest with you, as far as the state championship goes, if you are getting there, you don’t care where it is. You are just happy to have the opportunity to play.”
The facilities at Cumberland Valley are planned for major upgrades, including an artificial turf, that should be completed by August.
Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic won four PIAA titles at Hersheypark Stadium, including one last season over Redbank Valley.
“I’ll miss people making the Hershey signs about it being the ‘sweetest place on Earth’ and the whole thing,” Wheeler said. “It’s a little bit sad, because we’ve had such a great history there and so much success. There was something to the field not belonging to any school and the Hershey Kisses and the atmosphere. But when it’s all said and done, we’re going to be happy if we get a chance to play at Cumberland Valley in the next four years.”
Wheeler said if the game had to be moved, he would have liked to see it come to Mansion Park or Beaver Stadium, where he played with the Nittany Lions.
“I think playing and using the Penn State locker rooms, the Penn State field, the whole chance to do something not a whole lot of high school kids have been able to do would have been special,” Wheeler said. “It’s a field these kids watch on television for Whiteouts, and yes it would have been huge and probably looked like no one was there, but if you move it, that could have been something kids looked back on and got to say they played at Beaver Stadium.”
Franco said playing in Altoona, the game felt like the only show in town and was special. In Hershey, the games were just another weekend in a busy town.
“The hotels in Hershey put us and Mount Carmel on the same floor,” said Franco about his team’s trip to the 1999 state final. “I can remember (Dave) ‘Whitey’ Williams, the Mount Carmel head coach, and I talking to the manager, and he had no idea there were state championship games that weekend. He and I were stunned, but it was understandable, because they have so many things going on.”
Nedimyer, like Riccio, had hoped Altoona would win the bidding process, but in the end, playing in the game, not where it is, is the most important aspect.
“It would have been neat for us to have all these teams come into the area,” Nedimyer said. “But again, to have the opportunity to play, we wouldn’t care where it was.”