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When the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association released enrollment numbers last week, McKeesport Area School District was on the list to bump down in classifications from 5A to 4A.
The Tigers were listed as having 335 boys enrolled, down from 439 two years ago.
McKeesport Athletic Director Charley Kiss said via email the district hasn't yet made a decision if the Tigers’ football program will accept a move to Class 4A for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.
Tigers second-year coach Matt Miller wouldn’t mind staying put.
“We’ve always played Woodland Hills and Penn Hills and Gateway,” Miller said. “It’s hard to give that up. You have those built-in rivalries and healthy competition. I foresee us probably sticking in 5A. It hasn’t been finalized yet, but it’s hard to give up those rivalries. The kids get fired up for those games. I think the rivalries will make it hard to move to a lower division.”
Since the PIAA expanded to six classes from four before the 2016 season, the Tigers have a 17-6 record, including a 13-3 record against Big East Conference opponents.
McKeesport wrapped up its 2017 season on Nov. 10 with a 28-21 loss to Gateway in the semifinals at Norwin. The Gators, who went on to become the WPIAL champions, also beat McKeesport 21-18 during the regular season.
McKeesport hopes to have a decision by the end of next week, Kiss said.
If the Tigers do decide to drop down, they won't leave 5A with a whimper. After falling to Franklin Regional 14-7 to open the season, McKeesport (8-3) won seven of its last eight games to close the regular season.
“We told the kids, if you lose another game here, there’s a good chance you don’t make the playoffs,” Miller said. “As a group, the seniors showed a lot of leadership.”
One of the big changes McKeesport made was moving senior Layton Jordan to fullback. Miller wanted the original starter, Marcquise Butler, to focus on playing defensive line instead of going both ways.
Jordan, who is being recruited by Toledo and Temple, ended up leading the Tigers in rushing, and finished with 1,313 yards on 139 carries.
“The line did what they needed to do,” Jordan said. “(Playing fullback), you have to be ready to get hit and give out hits. I love it. It’s football.”
Adding in quarterback John Harper (1,165 yards) and Carlinos Acie (853) kept McKeesport’s opponents guessing.
“I think it was critical,” Miller said. “Moving Layton to fullback changed the whole look of our offense. He’s a dynamic player and him being able to touch the ball 70 percent of the time in our offense is a big deal. The other guys did a good job, but they had a hard time going both ways.”
Before losing to Gateway in the playoffs, McKeesport went on a two-week revenge tour.
First, they ruined Penn-Trafford’s chances of a perfect regular season with a 27-24 win in the finale. The Warriors had won five straight against the Tigers.
Then the Tigers handed West Allegheny, which beat McKeesport in the 2016 WPIAL title game, a 22-21 loss in the first round of the playoffs.
Gateway may have ended McKeesport’s hopes of a return to Heinz Field in 2017, but they didn’t leave the Tigers feeling like they couldn’t take on the bigger schools.
“We were proud to go further the last couple years than people thought we would,” Jordan said. “The Gateway loss was tough. We really wanted to give it back to them.”
Josh Rizzo is a freelance writer.
Originally published November 20, 2017.