'Bigger and better' New LHAC stretches through three districts, seven counties

Aug. 24—Welcome to the extended neighborhood. This is the year of conference expansion throughout the region, and no league in The Tribune-Democrat coverage area has grown as large as the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference.

In football, the LHAC went from 12 to 20 teams, with programs in the familiar District 5 and 6 area, as well as representation in District 9.

"It's a little different, but I like it," said Richland senior back Evan McCracken, an Army West Point recruit who was second in the area with 1,422 rushing yards in 2022. "Not everybody likes change, but I think it will be good in the long run."

LHAC football will be split into two 10-team sections, with two five-team divisions in each section — East 1, East 2 and West 1 and West 2.

Teams will play all four opponents in their respective divisions, as well as three games against teams in the opposite region (East 1 vs. East 2; West 1 vs. West 2) and two dates against teams from the opposite section (East vs. West). After Week 9, teams in each section will be ranked and the final regular-season date will be against the same-ranked school in the opposite section.

"It gives us an opportunity to travel to different schools in the central part of the state," Somerset coach Jeff Urban said.

"Who knows? We might start new rivalries. The kids are excited about the competition."

Although many schools are located significant geographical distances apart, travel will be limited because of the divisional setup.

For example, West 1 includes traditional city and region rivals McCort-Carroll, Greater Johnstown, Richland, Somerset and Westmont Hilltop.

West 2 includes Bedford, Central Cambria, Chestnut Ridge, Forest Hills and Penn Cambria — all teams familiar with each other through previous LHAC play.

Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic and Central, two of the consistent front-runners in recent LHAC seasons, moved to East 1 with Bellwood-Antis, a former Inter-County Conference team, as well as Huntingdon Area and Tyrone Area, both former Mountain League members.

East 2 includes five other former Mountain League squads — Bald Eagle Area, Bellefonte, Clearfield, Penns Valley and Philipsburg-Osceola.

One thing is almost certain, teams will face a challenging schedule in conference play.

"It's another season in the Laurel Highlands," said Richland coach Brandon Bailey, whose Rams are defending LHAC champions.

"We've had a lot of success the last couple of years. We're real excited about the new members coming into the league. We think that will make the conference grow even bigger and better."

Bishop Carroll Catholic is in a football co-op with Bishop McCort Catholic.

Hollidaysburg is in the LHAC in all of its sports except football. The conference will include 22 programs in most of the 18 sports.

A look at the expanded Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference, broken down by section and listed in alphabetical order:

West 1

Bishop McCort-Carroll Catholic — The Crushers had 45 players out during the first week of camp, a significant increase on a team that finished with 24 players last season.

McCort-Carroll evened its record at 2-2 a month into last season but closed on a six-game losing streak.

With nine starters back, the defense looks to be a solid unit.

The Crushers also welcome a group of players from two successful junior high teams.

Greater Johnstown — The Trojans will celebrate 125 seasons of football in the district. Greater Johnstown also hopes to celebrate a victory.

The Trojans have lost 30 consecutive games, but second-year head coach Antwuan Reed has seen a change in attitude and work ethic that he hopes translates into more on-field success.

Greater Johnstown returns 15 lettermen and four starters on both offense and defense.

Richland — The Rams have won 56 games in the previous five seasons, an average of 11.2 wins a year. Richland won four straight District 6 crowns from 2018-21 and three LHAC titles in five seasons, including an undefeated conference mark in 2022.

The Rams graduated plenty of talent, including 2,114-yard passer Sam Penna.

McCracken and a host of other playmakers are primed to fill the voids.

Somerset — Versatile quarterback Lane Lambert will be counted on as the Golden Eagles attempt to improve on a 1-9 mark. In his first season as head coach, Jeff Urban relied heavily on freshmen and sophomores last season and hopes to see the experience pay off this year.

Nine starters return on both offense and defense and 20 players earned letters in 2022.

Westmont Hilltop — The Hilltoppers welcome back the bulk of their offensive and defensive lines from a 4-6 team.

That bodes well for a unit that works out of the double-tight, double-wing formation.

Senior back Brayden Dean, who gained 975 rushing yards on 151 carries last season, was lost to injury during the preseason.

West 2

Bedford — The Bisons won their first five games in 2022 and then dropped a series of tight contests against the top teams in the LHAC.

Losses at Penn Cambria (27-20), at Richland (25-23) and against Central (38-35 OT) preceded wins over Greater Johnstown (60-8) and at Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic (18-7). The schedule closed with a loss at Berlin Brothersvalley (27-12) in the District 5-8 Class 2A semifinal round.

Central Cambria — The Red Devils relied on a significant number of underclassmen during a 3-7 season in 2022.

That group will bring experience to coach Don Fyfe's second season in the program.

Grady Snyder rushed for 575 yards and had 171 receiving yards last season. He scored nine touchdowns and 56 points.

Chestnut Ridge — Three-year starting quarterback Nate Whysong leads an experienced bunch into the new-look conference. Whysong completed 103 of 191 passes for 1,458 yards, seventh-best in the area in 2022, and rushed for 810 yards and 12 scores.

Last season's leading receiver Jeb Emerick (24 catches, 465 yards) also returns, but is at fullback.

Forest Hills — The Rangers lost their first four games in 2022, then bounced back with a pair of shutout victories before dropping three straight. The Rangers' topsy-turvy season closed with a win.

Nate Cornell completed 73 of 128 attempts for 1,158 yards and 10 touchdowns after moving to quarterback in the final six games. The junior is among six returning starters on offense and defense.

Penn Cambria — With 15 wins during the previous two seasons, including a 9-2 mark last year, the Panthers want to build on the standard set by last season's senior group that included Garrett Harrold, Vinny Chirdon, Zach Grove, Mason Raymond and Luke Shuagis.

Current senior Carter McDermott had 970 all-purpose yards last season, doing a lot of damage as a receiver and a return man. Junior Gavin Harrold, Garrett's younger brother, had 33 catches for 481 yards and five TDs last season.

East 1

Bellwood-Antis — The Blue Devils moved in from the Inter-Country Conference, where Bellwood-Antis traditionally was among the top contenders. Sixth-year coach Nick Lovrich returns four starters on offense and defense from a 6-5 playoff team.

Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic — The four-time Class 1A state champion Marauders moved up to Class 2A last season and won the District 6 crown on the way to a state quarterfinal appearance against Southern Columbia, which won its sixth straight state championship.

The Marauders must replace quarterback Karson Kiesewetter, the PIAA Class 1A player of the year in 2021 who is a walk-on at Penn State. Bishop Guilfoyle has five starters back on offense and six on defense.

Central — The Scarlet Dragons went 12-3 and reached the Class 3A state semifinal for a second straight season. Most notable among the missing from that group is current St. Francis University quarterback Jeff Hoenstine.

A three-time all-state quarterback, Hoenstine led Central to a 34-4 mark as a starter with 10,196 passing yards and career state records of 689 completions and 146 TD passes.

Eli Muthler or Lukas Black are listed as most likely to move into the spot vacated by Hoenstine's graduation. Linebacker Hunter Smith and most of the linemen return.

Huntingdon — Junior Eric Mykut will be a three-year starter at quarterback and sophomore Elliot Guisler played quarterback last season when Mykut was injured.

The Bearcats posted two wins last season after going winless in 2020 and '21.

Tim Lucko will coach Huntingdon after spending the past two seasons at Tussey Mountain.

Tyrone — The Golden Eagles are coming off an 8-2 season that included a berth in the District 6 Class 3A playoffs.

Tyrone has four starters returning on offense and five on defense for veteran coach John Franco.

Junior Ashton Walk is back at quarterback for a third consecutive season.

East 2

Bald Eagle Area — The Eagles went 8-4 last season as then second-year starting quarterback Carson Nagle passed for 2,810 yards and 29 TDs.

Nagle is back, and so is Kahle Burns, who had 903 receiving yards a year ago. Camron Watkins had 10.5 sacks in 2022.

Bellefonte — The Raiders and new coach Tony Confer look to improve on a 1-9 record last season.

Opponents outscored Bellefonte 387-67, an average of 38.7 to 6.7 points a game. The Raiders haven't had a winning record since 2019.

Clearfield — The District 9 Class 3A Bison went 8-4 with a 5-1 mark in the Mountain Conference during the final season of coach Tim Janocko's 38-year run (1985-2022).

Janocko went 307-120-3 with 18 District 9 titles, 12 10-win seasons and eight undefeated slates. Former Pitt football player Miles Caragein, an assistant coach with the Bison since 2014, takes over as Clearfield head coach.

Penns Valley — The Rams reached the District 6 Class 2A final, falling to Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic 56-35 last year.

Returning quarterback Jackson Romig completed 150 of 232 passes for 2,446 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while also running for 351 yards and five scores in 2022.

Receivers John Meyer (522 yards) and Ty Watson (376 yards) combined for nearly 900 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. — Philipsburg-Osceola went 3-7 last season, snapping a seven-game losing streak by scoring a combined 120 points in two late-season wins over Montgomery (64-7) and Ridgway (56-34).

The Mounties return all but two starters from that squad. Three-year starter Dayton Barger is at halfback, with other backfield returnees in senior fullback Jakodi Jones and junior halfback Sammy McDonald.

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.

{em}Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.