Old rivalries were best
This may be the old codger in me talking, but I think high school football was much more exciting when Mount Carmel and Shamokin played Berwick, don't you? Or when Mount Carmel played Pottsville.
You never knew what would happen when your team hosted or traveled to Shenandoah, Mahanoy Area, Tamaqua and Minersville (usually hostile territory). There was something special about coal region battles, and regardless of the win-loss records, you could never be completely sure what would happen. Upsets were always possible because the coal-dust-in-your-veins intensity of the rivalries were apt to motivate underdogs to exceed expectations.
It's not that teams from Lycoming County aren't great opponents, but when your high school team defeated a team from Schuylkill County, you got the same sensation as when you pulled something over on a taunting sibling.
Don't hold it against me if I'm getting it wrong. As the years go by, you tend to get more nostalgic about the past. Sometimes you remember things as being better than they actually were while failing to appreciate that things are really pretty good now.
But what the heck do I know about football? I would have looked ridiculous in football pads, and I've been to no more than five games in the last 10 years. I do follow local teams' progress, hope they all win and am particularly unhappy when my alma mater loses. So this latest rant is probably nothing more than old-timer's lament (dad-gum it).
Thank God, the Shamokin-Mount Carmel coal bucket game lives on. So do the Shikellamy games versus Shamokin and Mount Carmel Area, and for MCA, the North Schuylkill game. There's a lot of history and tradition behind these games, and these schools all deserve credit for building their schedules around them.
Obviously, no one in his right mind should ever want to give up what has become Shamokin and Mount Carmel's first-class rivalries against Southern Columbia and Selinsgrove; hopefully, they're here to stay. But just imagine what scholastic football would be like if, in addition to those great annual classics, Mount Carmel Area, Shamokin Area, Berwick, Pottsville and Shikellamy all still played each other.
In the old days, each weekend of the football season featured at least one marquee game, maybe even two. Results were followed closely because the outcome of each and every game had a bearing on who became the Southern Division champion.
If the schedule worked out in such a way that games of regional importance were scheduled for Saturday nights and therefore didn't conflict with Tornado or Indians games on Fridays, a large contingent of fans from eastern Northumberland County might routinely travel to Sunbury to see the Braves take on the Bulldogs or to Pottsville to see the Crimson Tide battle the Braves.
Folks 55 and older probably remember the old Saylor ratings. It seemed you practically had to be an MIT graduate to grasp the complicated mathematical formula that determined who would be the Southern Division champion.
For example, say Mount Carmel Area lost to Berwick, but defeated Pottsville and Shamokin, and Pottsville lost to Shikellamy but beat Berwick - who would win the division? It was impossible to tell without an intricate factoring-in of win-loss records of the teams each of these leading contenders beat during the season.
As the season winded down, things could get pretty tense. Fans might be informed that Mount Carmel Area would be the champ if the Tornadoes beat both Shikellamy and Shamokin Area, Pottsville lost to Berwick and North Schuylkill won over Tamaqua. Not just one of these things, all of them! Otherwise, Panther Valley would edge to the top by .002 percentage points. Such scenarios contributed to the overall excitement of the football season.
It was theoretically possible to finish with an undefeated record yet lose the Southern Division title to a team with one loss. No one complained, though, because, after all, figures don't lie, and they were checked and rechecked countless times. Frustrating sometimes, but always great fun.
For those who are too young to remember the Nixon, Ford and Carter presidencies, the Southern Division - of the Eastern Conference, that is - was, generally speaking, made up of teams from Northumberland, Columbia, Montour, Schuylkill and Carbon counties. In the era after the school jointures, Mount Carmel Area won division titles in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972 and 1973, Lourdes won in 1974 and Shamokin Area in 1975.
Obviously, there was also a Northern Division comprised mostly of teams from Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. At the end of the regular season, the Southern and Northern division teams bashed heads for the Eastern Conference title. One year, the game would be hosted by the Southern Division winner; the following year by the Northern. Mount Carmel won the conference championship in 1970, 1972 and 1973, Shamokin Area won in 1975 and Lourdes was a co-champion in 1974. It was positively exhilarating for a local team to clobber Valley View or Dunmore.
Now the very best teams in each class actually get to play for a PIAA state championship. Mount Carmel Area and Southern Columbia each have multiple titles to their credit. Many more teams make it to their respective district playoffs. It's an amazing accomplishment.
You decide which is better: The district playoff system we have now or the battle for the Southern Division championship we had way back when?
Don't just take the word of a guy who would gladly toss his personal computer out the window in favor an IBM Selectric typewriter.
(Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)