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Brothers breathe new life into struggling programs

September 19, 2018

MEADVILLE, Pa. (AP) — All the parking spots along North Street in front of Bender Field were taken. The lot down the hill near Shady Brook Park was full as well.

Inside the stadium, the home-side bleachers had a decent amount of people in them. Yet the visitors’ section looked almost full thanks to the trees along Mill Run offering some shade from Saturday morning’s steadily-intensifying sunshine.

The most bustling action, though, was on the turf at Bender Field. Stretching from one end zone to the other were dozens of young kids. They all had bright orange strips of plastic tucked into the waistbands of their shorts. And certain groups were attempting to move a pigskin from sideline to sideline, while certain other groups were trying to stop them by plucking one of those plastic strips away.

And as the morning progressed, more groups of kids began to appear. These kids were wearing full football gear — padded pants, shoulder pads, helmets. They congregated at opposite corners of the gridiron, waiting for their turn to get on the turf.

As a whole, the busy scene at Bender Field presented a youth football program that was thriving.

That’s just what brothers Mike and Matt Feleppa had in mind when they took over the Meadville Little Gridders program this year. Their aim was not just to reinvigorate youth football in Meadville, but across Crawford County.

Their method was forming the Crawford County Youth Football League, an 11-on-11 tackle football league for 4th, 5th and 6th grade players.

Previously, each area school had its own Little Gridders program. Each school would divide up all of its football players into teams. And those teams would play each other throughout the course of the season.

However, participation numbers are down for football in general. The former Little Gridders model was becoming unsustainable. For example, last season the Meadville Little Gridders program was down to three teams. And those three teams played against each other twice. That was their season.

“The kids weren’t playing a lot of football,” said Mike Feleppa, who was the head coach of the Meadville High School varsity team from 2012 to 2013. “And I knew the other county schools were in the same boat.”

So, the Feleppas started reaching out to the other Little Gridders programs, pitching the idea of joining forces and forming a county league.

“We met with all the other county schools,” said Mike Feleppa. “It made sense to them.”

The end result is a 12-team league, divided into two divisions — East and West. Eight communities are represented, some by more than one team. For example, Meadville has three teams while Cambridge Springs and Maplewood both have two.

“Each Little Gridder program is still its own entity,” said Feleppa. “They get their own coaches, they buy their own uniforms. We came together and came up with the rules that we all agreed upon — how the clock was going to be run, how to run special teams. There is no blitzing on defense, for example.

“We even went as far as letting each other know what kind of offensive system we were running and what defensive front, because none of us has the time to go scout each other.”

The league plays a six-week schedule (last week was Week 3). Each program gets three opportunities a season to host games. The other three weeks they travel. The parents handle the transportation.

“And the coaches help out if need be,” said Feleppa.

“When we first started, there were concerns about the travel,” said Kurt Willison, head coach of the Maplewood Black team, who was at Bender Field on Saturday for his team’s game against Meadville Red.

“But, when you look at the schedule,” said Willison, “it’s only three Saturdays that you have to travel. And if your kid is going to continue to play, like any sport, they’re going to have to travel. Football was one of the last youth sports where you didn’t travel.”

As it turns out, the travel aspect is helping to keep the game fresh for the players. They get to compete in different stadiums, against different opponents, in front of different fans.

“The feel of the game is different,” said Willison. “It’s 4th-, 5th- and 6th-graders. But it feels like, with the different fields and the parents in the stands, it feels like a varsity-level game. The intensity, it’s a lot cooler.”

Willison also noted that he’s seeing a better brand of football taking shape in the new league.

“The level of competition has improved,” he said. “In the past, it was all in-squad, we just had our four teams or whatever at Maplewood. And since we started this we’ve played Cambridge, we’ve played Saegertown, we’re here today against Meadville. And the competition is just that much higher, because you’re playing against all the best kids from all the other schools.”

Plus, the kids are wearing their own school’s colors, and they’re representing their communities against a neighboring community. That really gets the competitive juices flowing.

“You’re not the Colts or the 49ers anymore,” said Feleppa. “You’re Meadville Red, or you’re Saegertown, or Cochranton.”

And the teams are all running roughly the same offense as their varsity counterparts. So, by the time they reach junior high, these players can potentially have five years of experience running a particular offense.

“I think it’s the best thing that has happened to football in this county for a long time,” said Ken Achenbach, who has spent decades as a football coach at both the high school and college level, and is the winningest varsity coach in Meadville High history, winning 129 games with the program before retiring in 2012.

He was at Bender Field on Saturday lending his support to the Meadville Red team.

“I think it’s going to make everybody better,” Achenbach said. “They get to compete against kids that they know, but they also get to compete against kids from out in the county. And there’s nothing like competition to get you better.

“I’ve watched them. And it’s obvious that the coaches are coaching fundamentals. The kids seem to be well-coached. Their coaches seem to be teaching good skills, blocking and tackling. I think that every varsity coach in this county that has a team represented here should be very grateful for a job well done by the organizers of this program.”

According to Feleppa, “I haven’t heard anything but positive feedback. I’ve talked to the Maplewood head varsity coach, he’s thrilled. (Meadville head coach) Ray Collins is thrilled about.”

“I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from the parents,” added Willison. “The coaches seem to love it. The kids seem to be enjoying themselves too.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2xwRu2c

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Information from: The Meadville Tribune, http://www.meadvilletribune.com

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