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November 2, 2013

H.S. FOOTBALL: Home in Region 1 has toughened Eagles up

MEADVILLE — Two years ago, when the newly formed Class AAA Conneaut football program was placed in District 10’s Class A Region 1, there was a little confusion, some sore feelings.

Even though Conneaut — a consolidation of the former Conneaut Lake, Conneaut Valley and Linesville programs — wasn’t eligible to win the Region 1 title, a few fans and a couple coaches from the region expressed some dismay about a Class AAA team being among their ranks. And, from Conneaut’s perspective, it wasn’t exactly clear how well a mostly Class A schedule was going to prepare the Eagles to face Class AAA competition when the time eventually came.

Well after two full seasons of Conneaut existing uniquely in two separate worlds, those questions seem to be getting some answers. All in all, things seem to have worked out. Conneaut’s somewhat awkward presence didn’t deprive any Region 1 school from earning what would have been there’s anyway, as far as a league championship or a playoff spot goes.

And for the Eagles themselves, playing a Region 1 schedule hasn’t hurt their competitiveness one bit.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

“That league is a tough league,” said Conneaut head coach Pat Gould. “It prepares you. It prepares you for a lot, because you’re seeing a passing game from West Middlesex and Mercer, you’re seeing the speed from Farrell, and you see the power of Lakeview and Sharpsville. It’s not like, ‘Oh, you’re playing A.’

He added, “You’re in an A league. In theory it’s not fair. But those kids are good. To me, those region teams down there are good.”

Region 1 is a crucible. And triple-A roster or no, it hasn’t been easy for Conneaut. For the past two seasons, the Eagles opened the year with wins over Class AA Girard, only to lose three straight games to Region 1 competition.

“It’s pushed us,” said Conneaut junior Brennon Miller. “Because losing three games in a row at the beginning of the season to single-A teams really made us focus on what we were doing wrong and how to fix it.”

In both seasons, Conneaut was able to bounce back, finish above .500 and make the playoffs. And furthermore, the Eagles have been able to come up with mostly positive results when they’ve faced a Class AAA opponent.

Friday’s 46-26 win over Meadville makes the Eagles 3-1 against Triple-A teams in two seasons. And that one loss was a hard-fought game against Warren — which the Dragons won 21-12 — in last year’s District 10 playoffs.

Among the wins is perhaps the most pivotal game in Conneaut’s short history — the 41-40 win over General McLane in Week 5 of this season.

“The General McLane game was a huge win for the whole program,” said Hunter Merritt, Conneaut’s quarterback. “And I think we can play with just about anybody. And we’ve proved it.”

That game came right after Conneaut’s most recent three-loss skid.

“That turned our season around,” said Gould. “If we don’t win that one, then what do our kids do mentally? That’s four losses in a row. They could have crumbled. And they didn’t.”

Said Miller, “Going into General McLane and being able to fix those things and then beating a triple-A team of that caliber was awesome.”

With that McLane game, Conneaut won six straight to end the 2013 regular season. The Eagles finished it up with a second-straight win over Meadville. And now they’re looking to take the things they’ve learned playing those small but tough-as-nails schools in Region 1 and apply it once again to a bigger opponent.

The Eagles face Oil City in the opening round of this year’s D-10 tournament this coming Friday at Franklin High School.

“We definitely have a shot,” said Conneaut senior Jace Pardee. “Now it’s all about putting words into action. We’ve definitely got confidence from those games. I think we can carry it over into the playoffs. Hopefully we’ll get another game out of this season.”

Regardless of what happens next week, chances are pretty good that Conneaut will be a full-fledged Class AAA member the next two seasons.

It looks like they’ll be ready for it.

“They’ve just got to keep building,” said Gould. “Next year we’ll see where we end up. I assume we’re triple-A. But we’ve got to build. We’ve got to build all the programs in our school. And that’s a process.”

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