Backyard Brawl to be played in Week 5 in Laurel Highlands
Restrictions brought on by the COVID pandemic made 2020 bizarre in a lot of ways, and high school sports weren’t spared from the strange new world augmented to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Kids wore masks during athletic competitions, stadiums and gyms were restricted to lower capacities, and games were postponed and cancelled frequently when cases of the virus broke out.
Tyrone and Bellwood-Antis adjusted to all of those adaptations, but none were as weird to wrap one’s mind around as the Week 8 start time for the Backyard Brawl.
A shortened season and a delay of Week 1 games wiped out the Brawl on its traditional date – the first Friday of the football season – and there were questions about whether the game would be played at all. By the end of the regular season, both teams were involved in playoff races and it looked like postseason engagements would mean a year without a Tyrone-B-A football game for the first time since 1938.
But when Bellwood lost in the 2A semifinals and Tyrone in the 3A finals, there was an opening for a Week 8 game, which the Devils won 29-16.
The familiarity of a game against a local rival was comforting in the middle of a pandemic, but the late-season kickoff made the game quite odd, to say the least.
That same feeling of things being slightly off kilter could return next season if the powers that be in the Laurel Highlands Conference ignore the pleas of the two teams coaches’ in regards to a schedule change that neither are in favor of.
Both Tyrone and B-A are headed to the Laurel Highlands starting in the 2023 season, and under the conference’s schedule Week 1 is reserved for out-of-conference games. Normally that would not be a problem – outside of a five year period in the mid-2000s the Eagles and Devils have always been non-conference rivals, but that’s going to change in 2023 when not only are the teams in the same conference but also the same section.
So Blair County’s top rivalry, which has been a staple of Week 1 since the early 1980s, is slated to be played in Week 5, and neither Tyrone coach John Franco nor B-A coach Nick Lovrich is thrilled about it.
“We don’t like it,” said Franco. “I didn’t know it until (Tyrone athletic director) Luke (Rhoades) showed me a couple weeks ago. I was a little bit surprised. Nick talked to me and said he wasn’t in favor of it, and I said neither am I.”
Both coaches see the value in keeping the game in its Week 1 spot, citing things like tradition and the role both communities play in the game.
“There is such a build up from both communities leading up to the game,” Lovrich said. “It becomes a big motivator for the players because all winter and summer that is what they all point to and one of the reasons why they do that extra rep or extra sprint. Both communities come out to support the game no matter where it is. I don’t think you will get that same build up as a week 5 game.”
While the series between Tyrone and Bellwood-Antis began in 1939, it became a feature of Week 1 starting in 1944, and it remained the first game of the season until 1976, when it was moved to Week 2 for two seasons. The Brawl returned to the opening week in 1978, and the format changed only one other time, when it went back to Week 2 from 1981 through 1983. 1984 saw the game go back to the first game of the season, and outside of the COVID year it’s been that way ever since.
Unless things change, it will be played in Week 5 for at least a couple of seasons, but both Lovrich and Franco are looking into preventing that.
“It’s still a year away,” said Franco. “It doesn’t seem like it’s written in stone. They’ve had five different schedules already. So to me it’s not something that can’t be changed. We’ll do whatever needs to be done to get the thing to the opening game because I think it should be that.”
One of the alluring aspects of the Backyard Brawl is that, for most of its duration, it has been a game with implications all its own. The teams played in the same classification briefly in 1988 and then in 2000, but rarely has there been a chance for the Tyrone and B-A to play twice in a season. At the same time, as non-conference foes, the Brawl has no league implications. And when the PIAA expanded in 2016 and designated Week 1 as Week 0, it only heightened the game’s impact. Then it was truly a game in itself, where the meaning was found merely in the rivalry.
Conference implications will come as the teams play for the same sectional title moving forward, but that doesn’t change the game’s legacy for the two communities, Lovrich said.
“Everyone is excited because it is football season and you are playing your rival. Hopefully something can be worked out because Bellwood versus Tyrone is just not another game, it is the Backyard Brawl,” he said.
Franco was hopeful that once league organizers are completely made aware of how big a Week 1 Brawl is the to the communities, some changes could be made.
“I don’t think most Tyrone and Bellwood fans are happy about it,” he said. “Maybe we can get a sympathetic ear form the Laurel Highlands people and see if we can get it moved.”
B-A athletic director Charlie Burch said the schools would look into their options, but he couldn’t promise a positive solution.
“It is definitely a huge change in our schedule and routine. We will be looking in the future to bring it back as game number1, but that is no guarantee when you join a new league,” he said.
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