Rivalries are mainly defined by geography.
Pittston Area and Wyoming Area can stare at each other from the banks of the Susquehanna River. The Back Mountain encompasses both Dallas and Lake-Lehman.
Hanover Area and Nanticoke take the idea a step further. There’s actually a Hanover section of Nanticoke, sounding as if Nanticoke captured the territory during a medieval war.
Then there’s Berwick (5-2) and Wyoming Valley West (5-2), which play at 7 p.m. Friday at Spartan Stadium in Kingston.
The two schools are separated by roughly a 25-mile strip of Route 11. Unlike the aforementioned rivalries, football is the only sport that fires up the communities.
A big reason is one man — the late George Curry. The teams have played 40 times. Curry coached in 35 of the games — 32 with Berwick during which time he won six Class 3A state titles and three with Valley West.
“It started with George and it became heated over the years,” Valley West coach Pat Keating said. “Two passionate communities and the student bodies take it on as well. What really heightened it was when George came to Valley West and then went back down to Berwick. I think that’s when things got heightened and escalated.”
Curry graduated from Larksville High School, one of the schools that formed Valley West in 1967. There were persistent rumors of clandestine efforts to pry Curry away from Berwick while he was building the program into a nationally recognized power. They finally paid off in 2006 as Curry coached three years at Valley West, then retired only to return to Berwick from 2012-2015.
Curry’s Berwick teams dominated Valley West in his first stint there. The Dawgs defeated Valley West 10 consecutive times and when the Spartans snapped the losing streak with a 3-0 win in 1997, their section of Route 11 was clogged with a victory parade later that night.
“When Coach came back to Berwick and Pat took over there at Valley West, there was a lot of familiarity between both programs and both staffs,” Berwick first-year coach Frank Sheptock said. “There are a lot of ingredients there. You take two quality football programs and two quality communities and then you add in some of those other very unique dynamics. That all leads into what the rivalry is right now.”
It also helps that the game more often than not has postseason implications.
Valley West is already in the District 2 Class 5A playoffs as all three teams make the postseason. However, Valley West needs to keep Abington Heights at arm’s length to clinch the top seed and home field in the championship game.
Berwick has clinched a D2-4A playoff spot. The Dawgs, though, will need help to catch first-place North Pocono or second-place Wyoming Area — a pair of 6-1 teams.
Berwick’s 34-20 loss to Wyoming Area in Week 3 was particularly hurtful. It was the only game standout running back Len Wyda (1,002 yds., 17 TDs) failed to crack 100 yards on the ground. The run defense was troublesome as well, allowing 276 yards which was the most since Week 1 of the 2014 season.
“The last few weeks we’ve been playing really well,” Sheptock said. “We worked out some of our run game issues since the Wyoming Area game with our run defense. Offensively, we’ve been close. We just haven’t been able to take that next step, although we were able to get some explosion plays (against Pittston Area). Over the course of the last few weeks we’ve been playing better, so I can hope we can continue to move in that direction.”
Berwick will need to curtail the production of Valley West running back Sean Judge and quarterback Aaron Austin. Sheptock raved about Judge’s versatility but even more about his competitiveness. Same goes for Austin. He called tackle Chris Bleich the best in the area.
Berwick has leaned more toward the run the last two games after a 17-14 loss to Selingrove. Quarterback Jared Marshman, though, can throw the ball. His main receivers — wideouts Matt Champ, Anthony Cicini, Mike Force and Harrison Kuchka — have all come up big this season. There’s not a slowpoke in the bunch.
Fortunately for Valley West, it recently returned safety Jake Shemo to the lineup after he missed a good part of the season due to an injury. The senior is the on-field choreographer of the defense.
“It’s huge,” Keating said. “He brings so much to the table. The thing that goes unnoticed is his brains, especially on the defensive side of the ball. He checks us in and out of everything. He is definitely a great presence to have back on both sides of the ball.”
Reach John Erzar at 570-991-6394 or on Twitter @TLJohnErzarcomments powered by Disqus