Most of our WPIAL coverage on Steel City Blitz is objective coverage, discussing standings, playoff scenarios, and Games of the Week. This project is be something a little different – a first-person account of my family visiting different towns and stadiums throughout Western Pennsylvania. Two years ago I started the Tour of the WPIAL with visits to Rochester, Southmoreland, and West Greene. Unfortunately we weren’t able to make any visits in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, but with fans allowed back in attendance this year, the Tour continues! After visiting Sto-Rox last week, we made the trip north to Lawrence County this week for another 2A showdown.
Municipalities: Hickory Twp, Scott Twp, Slippery Rock Twp
Laurel School District is a rural district located to the northeast of New Castle in Lawrence County. The area has a rich Native American history and was the seat of the Ohio Valley Regency of the Six Nations of Central New York. Lawrence County was settled primarily by German and Scotch-Irish immigrants in the 1790s. In 1798 John Carlisle Stewart, who was originally from the town of New Castle, Delaware, laid claim to the lands between the Shenango River and Neshannock River. This area would grow into the current city of New Castle, the Lawrence County seat. The Lawrence County Historical Society has records mentioning a log school house near Harlansburg as early as 1800. The town of Harlansburg is in present day Scott Twp, which is part of the Laurel School District. The area was originally part of Allegheny County, but in 1800 became split between Beaver and Mercer Counties when they were formed. In the 1820s there was a movement to create a new county. Finally on March 20, 1849, the Governor ratified the creation of the county, naming it for Captain James Lawrence who had been the hero of the Battle of Boston Bay in 1813. The 13 original townships of the county were Big Beaver, Little Beaver, Mahoning, Neshannock, North Beaver, North Sewickley, North Slippery Rock, Perry, Pulaski, Shenango, Slippery Rock, Wayne, and Wilmington.
In 1852, Daniel Kennedy opened a gristmill along Slippery Rock Creek. The original mill was destroyed by a fire in 1868 but was rebuilt and sold to Thomas McConnell in 1875. McConnell replaced the water turbines and grindstones with rolling mills, making “McConnell’s Mill” one of the first rolling mills in the country. Near the mill sits a Howe truss covered bridge, spanning Slippery Rock Creek.
The bridge was built in 1874 and is one of just five covered bridges ever built in Lawrence County. The only other covered bridge remaining in the County is near Volant. The McConnell’s Mill Covered Bridge is one of only four remaining Howe truss bridges in the entire state of Pennsylvania. McConnell’s Mill closed in 1928. The mill building, the covered bridge, and the lands around Slippery Rock Creek transferred to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1942 and to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1957 when McConnell’s Mill State Park was dedicated. The mill building and covered bridge are located in Slippery Rock Twp, which is served by Laurel School District.
Originally, the county contained a centralized high school in New Castle with the surrounding townships being served by either one-room school houses and later centralized schools within the townships. The 1920s saw a number of new schools constructed in both New Castle and the surrounding areas. After the Great Depression saw the closing of a number of mills and industrial sites, Roosevelt’s New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corp enabled men to find work and provide for their families while finishing their high school education. After World War II, the G.I. Bill fueled an influx of new homes for returning soldiers. With the growing population, the one-room school houses phased out and consolidated, centralized districts grew. Laurel School District was the first consolidation in the county in the 1950s, bringing together Hickory, Scott, and Slippery Rock townships.
Laurel first competed in football in 1959. The Spartans have been a successful program over the years, winning 9 conference championships and winning the 1980 WPIAL Class A title, defeating Clairton 14-12. Laurel also reached the WPIAL AA Championship Game in 1977 (losing to South Allegheny) and Class A title game 1989 (losing to Clairton). Laurel and Clairton have a long history. In addition to their two meetings in WPIAL title games, Laurel holds the designation as the only team to beat Tyler Boyd’s Clairton Bears in the four years that Boyd was in high school. In the first game of the 2009 season, Clairton made the trip north to Laurel and fell to the Spartans on a touchdown in the final minute for a 15-8 defeat. Laurel has been a team that has bounced between the Class A and AA designations in the four classification era and between 1A and 2A in the six classification era.
In recent years, Laurel has been a team right on the cusp of the playoffs. They made the 2A playoffs in 2016 and 2017, defeating Chartiers-Houston in a defensive struggle in 2016 before falling to eventual state champions Steel Valley. The following year the Spartans went just 3-7 overall but their two conference wins were enough to earn them the 2A Wild Card and a rematch with Steel Valley. Laurel moved down to 1A the following cycle and missed the playoffs in consecutive season on the narrowest of margins. In 2018 they finished 3rd in the Big Seven conference but missed by losing the Wild Card margin of victory tiebreaker to Imani Christian. In 2019 Laurel finished tied with OLSH for third place in the Big Seven Conference after defeating conference champion Sto-Rox, but lost the tiebreaker to OLSH due to an 8-point head-to-head loss. Last season Laurel flipped the script, moving back up to 2A and finishing in a tie for second place with New Brighton, but the Spartans earned the playoff spot this time around due to a 2-point head-to-head victory. In the postseason, Laurel held a lead on Sto-Rox for much of the game but the Vikings stormed back in the second half and claimed a 21-20 victory. In other sports, the Laurel Spartans softball team has won the last three WPIAL 2A titles.
McConnell’s Mill State Park
We stopped at McConnell’s Mill State park to eat dinner prior to the game. There is a nice open space and kids play area on the hill above the old mill and covered bridge. After about an hour in the car, our crew was certainly ready for some climbing and sliding. The park is conveniently close to I-79 (though the entrance on Kildoo road could use some better signage).
After a delicious dinner of Pitaland Baba Ghannouj and Tabbouleh, we made the short drive up to Laurel High School. We took the winding road through the park to pass the Mill and Covered Bridge and got to drive through some narrow passageways between giant boulders that our kids found fascinating.
Laurel High School
Laurel High School is an all-brick building with plenty of spartan logos emblazoned on the windows and outside of the building. The Leonard S. Rich Athletic Complex, whose namesake served the District in numerous capacities including Math and Latin teacher, head football coach, athletic director, principal, and superintendent as well as serving as an assistant coach to the baseball and basketball teams. The facility is well-maintained and has relatively new bleachers on both sides along with an impressive press box structure.Spartan stadium itself is set in a north-south alignment so that the sun sets behind the home bleachers. The press box along with the trees that line the north side of the field cast shadows across the natural grass and visiting bleachers early in the contest. The backdrop of the stadium, as shown below and in the header picture, is framed by a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees to the north and east. While we visited in mid-September, I can imagine this would be an amazing panorama once the leaves start changing in a few weeks.
For the game itself, Laurel came in returning a number of starters from their playoff team last year and had the formidable backfield tandem of RB Luke McCoy and QB Kobe DeRosa. Beaver Falls was the defending WPIAL 2A Champions but had graduated their top two rushers and moved to more of a pass-oriented offense with QB Jaren Brickner. Even though this was the first week of conference play, my notion coming in to the season was that these were the top two teams in the Midwestern Conference so this game could be the deciding factor for the conference title.
After a back-and-forth exchange of punts to start the game, Laurel struck first with a drive inside the 10 yard line that they couldn’t punch in but got a short field goal. Beaver Falls responded by driving the length of the field and Brickner cashed it in for a touchdown. Laurel drove it back into Beaver Falls territory before a DeRosa pass on 3rd and long was intercepted. The tide seemed to be turning for Beaver Falls as they were quickly into Laurel territory, but a taunting penalty followed by holding and procedure penalties pushed the Tigers back until they were staring down a 3rd and 30. On the ensuing punt, Laurel returned it all the way inside the Tigers 35. Two plays later, Luke McCoy went straight up the gut and scampered through the defense for a 32-yard touchdown run, putting Laurel back in front 10-7.
Beaver Falls has some impressive players on their team, including WRs Quadir Thomas and Mekhi Clark. Both made a number of leaping grabs where they high-pointed the ball and simply were too big for the Laurel defenders. Thomas in particular made several highlight-reel catches. Beaver Falls got a big result on a broken running play where they missed a handoff and Brickner was forced to scramble to his left, but hurled the ball downfield and Clark came down with it inside the 10. Trey Singleton would punch it in with under a minute to go in the half to give Beaver Falls a 14-10 halftime lead.
After the half, a Laurel fumble would allow Beaver Falls to stretch their lead to 21-10 on another short touchdown run. But Laurel showed a ton of heart and never gave up. On the ensuing kickoff, Luke McCoy ran it back 80 yards to the house to answer the touchdown and cut the lead to 4. The Spartans defense played some inspired ball after that, not allowing another point to the Tigers. Laurel would retake the lead early in the fourth quarter on a Kobe DeRosa QB keeper for 56 yards right through the middle of the defense. After Laurel’s defense put points on the board with a safety, Luke McCoy struck again with a 48 yard touchdown on a sweep to the left to put the Spartans up by 11. Kobe DeRosa added the icing on the cake of a 39-21 victory with another touchdown run late in the 4th quarter.
Overall, Laurel had a great atmosphere with friendly fans that were very accommodating with our pack of children. The Spartans team showed a ton of heart and grit not folding after Beaver Falls took an 11-point lead and put together a 22-point 4th quarter that carried them to victory. Luke McCoy’s two rushing touchdowns and kickoff return touchdown was an amazing overall performance. Laurel also had an impressively large band and put on a good show. The Spartans have a really nice campus with the high school and stadium all together (and the elementary school nearby). With all the trees bordering the field, I can only imagine how great this backdrop must look once the leaves start changing colors. Congratulations to Laurel on kicking off conference play with a big win over the defending WPIAL champs!