Under Beitel’s leadership, Ligonier Valley football grows into regular contender for district, PIAA success
Looking fit and trim -- and dapper, to boot -- Roger Beitel strode around a table inside the Richland Fire Hall in suburban Johnstown last week and welcomed a visitor to a luncheon promoting the annual Appalachian Bowl high school football game.
In just a few days, Beitel, the unreticent coach at Ligonier Valley, would lead his team to a 37-point mauling of Shade in a matchup of unbeaten conference champions.
“Yes, it’s me. I wasn’t sure if you’d notice. I’ve dropped a few pounds,” Beitel said, jokingly.
But it was no joke for the man who had endured a heart attack in 2011, at age 40, and four years later coached his fledgling football team to a regular-season victory over Homer-Center, a day after his wife Amy had suffered a stroke, from which she eventually recovered.
Both instances had a profound effect on his family, including two sons who also were associated with that 2015 team, freshman Zach as a player and Nick as a sixth-grade ball boy. Both boys are continuing their connection to their dad’s team, Zach a senior wide receiver/cornerback and Nick a freshman receiver/defensive back.
Neither was it any laughing matter that Heritage Conference-champion Ligonier Valley (10-0) later trounced WestPAC-champion Shade, 45-8, in the Appalachian Bowl on Saturday night at Windber Stadium, handing the Panthers (9-1) their first loss.
If not for a fourth-quarter touchdown by Shade, ranked No. 5 statewide in Class A, the outcome would have been Ligonier Valley’s third consecutive shutout in the annual District 6 showcase event, which was revived in 2016 after going dormant in 1993, a year before Beitel took over as coach of the Rams.
They stifled record-setting Shade quarterback Brady Fyfe, who entered the game having thrown for more than 10,500 career yards and 38 of his four-year total of 116 touchdowns.
“What we did to that quarterback was impressive,” Beitel said afterwards. “He’s one of the best in the state.”
As is Ligonier Valley. Under Beitel’s watch, the Rams reached the PIAA quarterfinals in 2017 and semifinals in 2016.
“They’ve been the standard up there for awhile now,” said Shade coach Don Fyfe, whose team is a member of District 5 and, under a cooperative program, includes players from nearby Shanksville-Stonycreek, which doesn’t sponsor a football team.
WESTMORELAND’S HIDDEN GEM
For much of the season, Ligonier Valley has been ranked No. 2 in the state by Trib Total Media, a standing that remains unchanged entering its scheduled first-round game of the District 6 playoffs Friday night against Marion Center at Greensburg’s Offutt Field.
But why District 6 for the Rams, who long ago were members of the WPIAL in basketball?
“Playing in the WPIAL would be a transportation nightmare,” Beitel said. “When you look at most of the WPIAL schools close to our size around here, they’re Triple-A schools.”
Ligonier Valley, whose enrollment falls in the upper third of the 2A parameters after its merger in 2011 with neighboring Laurel Valley, travels north and east for its road games and was joined recently in the predominantly Class A Heritage Conference by West Shamokin, another 2A school, which transferred its membership to District 6 from the WPIAL before the start of the 2016 season.
Marion Center is the only other 2A school in the Heritage.
“We never talk about the merger,” Beitel said. “We have just one starter and two seniors this year who would have attended Laurel Valley.”
A RISE TO PROMINENCE
At home in the ridges of the Laurel Highlands, Ligonier Valley has been a household name. Outside of the district, including the WPIAL region, the Rams remain a relative unknown.
The perception seems to be “not yet.”
Despite getting within a game of playing for a state championship two years ago and falling a mere game short of that benchmark last year, Beitel’s Rams, to most, represent just another line in the long list of Saturday morning scores. They don’t seem to stand out like other names in the class, such as Southern Columbia, Dunmore and Wilmington.
But in Westmoreland County, Jeannette and Greensburg Central Catholic have garnered similar statewide attention in the county in recent years, both reaching the PIAA championship game in the past decade.
For the WPIAL region, the mystery at Ligonier Valley is the Rams’ absence from District 7.
“The last two seasons, we went to Pitt and did really well in seven-on-sevens,” Beitel said. “We lost close ones to Massilion (Ohio) and Penn Hills and we beat Steel Valley, crushed them one year. At times, (Aaron) Tutino was the best player on the field.
The senior wide receiver, who is committed to Division II West Virginia State, this season established a PIAA record for career touchdown receptions.
THE DRIVING FORCE
In Beitel’s 15 seasons as coach at Ligonier Valley, the Rams have gone from ho-hum to exhilarating -- almost all at once.
“We ran the wing-T for a long time,” he said. “It brought success, but it didn’t take us to the championship level. If you’re going to win a championship, you’ve got to be able to throw a ball downfield.”
Beitel, 47, whose career record is 114-51, said that it wasn’t until the emergence in 2013 of a young freshman quarterback named Collin Smith that he abandoned the Wing-T formation.
“Collin was a super-talented quarterback as he came up through our system,” Beitel said. “He had a rocket arm and the feet of a tailback. We went from a ground-and-pound football team that ran the ball and played good defense to a team that could score 49 points in a quarter.”
Smith spent a year at West Virginia as a safety before transferring to Lackawanna College to play quarterback.
“He was the guy who opened my eyes to the fact that if we want to win championships, we had to push the envelope that no one has seen,” said Beitel, a Sewickley native, who attended Penns Manor High School, in Indiana County, and Lebanon Valley College, where he played linebacker.
Beitel said he’s rejected overtures from other schools to coach their programs, insisting he’s been comfortable at Ligonier Valley all along.