"We know that we have a target on our backs every week," said Archbishop Wood's Nick Arcidiacono, a senior two-way end. "We have to come into every game, no matter who we're playing, and work hard. No one is going to hand it to us."
The likes of Wood, North Penn, La Salle, and George Washington - and, in Class AA, West Catholic - have dominated their respective leagues, leaving, in most years, little suspense as to where the first-place hardware will reside at the end of the season.
Solid coaching has played a big part in the supremacy. So, too, has a near-year-round pursuit of excellence. And a winning mentality, particularly during crunch time in tightly contested matchups, also factors into the equation.
Also key when it comes to staying in the penthouse, of course, are enrollment numbers. North Penn, a Class AAAA program, has 1,575 males in grades 10 through 12, according to the PIAA's most recent figures.
Another issue, in some cases, is the seemingly increasing number of high-caliber transfers, many raising eyebrows and scorn, before each season. Also, when it comes to open-enrollment programs without geographic borders, the ability to draw players from near and far.
Still, rival players and coaches know they can't sit around and wait for a level playing field, possible league realignment, or the PIAA one day deciding to use a playoff system that separates public and private/charter/magnet schools.
The non-front-runners must doggedly forge ahead and believe, no matter the odds, that the mighty can be conquered. The perennial powers, meanwhile, will do everything they can to maintain their king-of-the-hill status.
Central Bucks West was the dynasty team of the 1990s. North Penn seized that mantle early in the new millennium. Since coach Dick Beck took over in 2002, the Knights have averaged nearly 12 wins per season.
"They have the mental mind-set that they're the team to beat," said Ed Gallagher, coach of Suburban One League Continental rival Souderton. "And until someone challenges them a little bit, they are the team to beat."
Beck, who was an offensive lineman at C.B. West and Temple, said North Penn had 97 varsity players (grades 10 through 12) at the start of this year's training camp. In comparison, Pennridge had 50; Souderton, 57; Central Bucks East, 60; and C.B. West, 75.
"The sport that is most dramatically affected by enrollment is football," C.B. West coach Brian Hensel said. "When you don't have the numbers, losing two or three kids to injury can change everything."
Beck is 119-21 in 10 seasons. The Knights went 13-3 last year, advancing to the state final before losing to Central Dauphin, 14-7.
"For us, a lot of it is about expectations," Beck said. "Expectations on time commitment, winning, working out in the offseason, doing speed drills, weightlifting. No one is going to put higher expectations on us than we do ourselves."
In the Catholic League's Class AAAA division, La Salle, with Drew Gordon at the controls, has won five of the last six championships.
Gordon said he had between 80 and 83 varsity players at the start of camp. "We've been fortunate to always have pretty good numbers," he said. "As long as that continues, we should be effective."
The Explorers won the state title in 2009, and were runners-up in 2010. Including playoffs, they are 26-2 in league action the last four seasons.
"They retool every year, and they're very well-coached," Roman Catholic coach Joe McCourt said. "Also, they have this confidence that, no matter what happens, they can pull out the victory. That's a big thing to have on the football field."
Roman twice fell to La Salle last year, including a 16-6 decision in the Catholic League final. The Explorers' last league loss came against St. Joseph's Prep in September 2009.
"It's kind of a situation where everyone always expects them to win," said Father Judge's Vince LoStracco, a senior two-way lineman. "That has to change. We have to get past that."
Wood had a level of success before coach Steve Devlin's arrival in 2007, winning three straight Catholic League Blue Division titles beginning in 2003, but the Vikings have become a virtual wrecking machine on his watch.
Last year, after falling just short in 2009 and '10, Wood captured Class AAA state gold in Hershey. After a Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh's Central Catholic, it won 14 straight by a combined score of 682-104.
"They were phenomenal," said Danny Algeo, coach of Catholic League AAA rival Cardinal O'Hara. "That was as good a team as I've ever seen."
Last year, including playoffs, the Vikings thumped league foes by an average of 41 points. That said, wouldn't Devlin want more of a challenge, say as a member of the Catholic League's AAAA grouping?
"They're tough games every year," he said of playing O'Hara and Bonner-Prendergast (Lansdale Catholic is a Class AAA newcomer, replacing Archbishop Carroll). "We can only play who we're supposed to play. I don't decide who we play."
Wood did add North Penn to its nonleague slate, with this year's clash set for Sept. 8.
"We'll be able to measure ourselves, and see where we're at," Devlin said.
Since 2000, George Washington, with Ron Cohen at the helm, has claimed seven Public League championships, including four of the last five.
Said Cohen: "I tell the kids from the very beginning, 'Almost every team we play will play their best against Washington.' And I don't blame them."
Cohen, set to begin his 28th season in charge, has guided the Eagles to 12 league titles. "One of the reasons behind our success, I think, is that I try to surround myself with quality coaches," he said.
At least three of his former assistants went on to become head coaches: Chris Riley (Cardinal Dougherty, Northeast), Ken Sturm (Overbrook), and John Davidson (Mastery North).
Overall, Cohen is 241-69-2. The highlight of his career came in 2008, when, after beating Northeast for the league crown, Washington knocked off La Salle for top District 12 Class AAAA honors.
The Eagles have averaged nine wins per season over the last decade.
"Teams are gunning for us," Cohen said. "We like that challenge. It's up to us to outwork everybody else."
Contact Rick O'Brien
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