By EMMETT MCCALL
After 51 years of playing "in-house" football, the Lehighton Athletic Booster Club's Knee-Hi program will hit the road this fall.
Lehighton was the last area holdover from the days when almost all the local communities fielded multiple teams that played games in town.
But with numbers dwindling and competition levels down, Lehighton has made the decision to join Lehigh Valley Youth Football League for the 2010 season.
"We had been talking about it the last couple of years," said LABC representative Glenn Whiteman, a former player on Lehighton's knee-hi and high school football teams. "This year, we finally got enough votes to make the change.
"There are pros and cons with both the traveling and in-house leagues. But we feel like the pros defintely outweigh the cons when it comes to joining the new league. I think the kids and the entire community are going to be excited about what the league has to offer."
After more than a half century of LABC games between Army, Navy, Oklahoma and Notre Dame, Whiteman said that there was some opposition to making the change.
"Change is always difficult," he said. "But the majority of the people in our organization are confident that this is the right decision at the right time.
"Our numbers are down from where they used to be. Last year, we had just 14 kids on some teams which really puts you in a bind if any kids get injured or sick. In addition, the competition level wasn't where we felt it needed to be to help all the kids in the program improve."
That should definitely change now.
Lehighton will join the 10-team Lehigh Valley Youth Football League that includes five other programs from the TIMES NEWS coverage area. The Indians will be in the North Division along with the Palmerton Blue Bombers, the Northern Lehigh Bulldogs, the Marian Colts and the Pleasant Valley Cubs. The South Division is comprised of the Northwestern Tigers, the Bath Lions, the Fullerton Ramblers, the Salisbury Falcons and the Southern Lehigh Spartans.
The 10-game schedule includes home and away games against the other four teams in the North Division and two games against South Division teams.
Last season, the teams Lehighton will compete against in the North Division had a lot of success. Pleasant Valley won the flag division, Palmerton won both the 85 and 100-pound division, and Marian captured the 130-pound title.
"We're really excited about how the league is set up," said LABC vice-president Mike Gornick. "All the teams in our division are local rivals for Lehighton High School's sports teams so that is a very nice benefit.
"We think that playing against those teams will force our players to improve and our coaches to improve. In the end, that will not only benefit our knee-hi program but the high school program as well. I think one of the biggest benefits of the new league is that fact that these kids will get to play as 'Lehighton Indians' all the way up through the program. They won't be Army players or Navy players, they'll all be Lehighton players."
The LABC has already talked to Lehighton varsity football coach George Ebbert about the program.
"I feel like we need support from the high school program to make this work," Whiteman said. "Coach Ebbert promised that the varsity coaching staff will be available to work with our coaches and players if we need them and we're definitely going to take advantage of that offer."
One of the concerns voiced about joining a travel league was playing time. With such a small number of players on each team in the in-house league in recent years, a lot of players never came off the field.
But Whiteman and Gornick feel the combination of the Lehigh Valley League's multiple divisions that include boys from ages 5-13 and the LABC rules (no cuts and everyone must play a minimum number of plays) will keep everyone happy.
The LABC also feels like it has addressed two other major issues that people were worried about.
"There were some conerns about cost and distance of a traveling league," said Gornick. "But we have a number of fund-raising projects set up with local businesses to help us out with the costs and our division opponents are all close."
With a lot of groundwork already laid, the next step for the LABC is to create interest and get football players and cheerleaders out for the team.
They will be holding an information meeting for parents and players/cheerleaders on May 12th at 6 p.m. in the Lehighton High School auditorium to answer all questions and will also have uniforms available at that time so participants can get the correct sizing. Youngsters may sign up at that meeting or one of three other dates in May and June that will be listed over the next several weeks in the calendar of events on the TIMES NEWS scoreboard page.
The LABC will also be running a football camp and a cheering camp the week of July 26-31.