2022 Cocalico at Exeter D3 Championship

Cocalico poses for a photo after winning District 3 Class 5A football championship against Exeter at Exeter High School’s Don Thomas Stadium in Reading on Friday, November 25, 2022.

Year One of the massive Lancaster-Lebanon League/Berks County confluence, a 37-team mega football conference, is in the books, and from all indications, it was a smashing success.

The league had several hopes for the merger, which applies, for now, only to the fall football season. More balance. Closer competition. Flexibility in scheduling.

What did the league get? All five sections were competitively balanced. New rivalries were hatched. Teams survived some different — and longer — bus rides. All of the championship races went down to Week 10.

And thanks to the new schedule, 18 league teams ended up qualifying for the postseason, with Cocalico and Wyomissing claiming District Three crowns. Manheim Township, Manheim Central and Annville-Cleona all advanced to district championship clashes. Hamburg, Twin Valley and Berks Catholic won postseason games. And the playoffs saw matchups from teams that previously sat in different leagues, such as Cocalico against Exeter.

Coaches, players, officials and fans waited nearly five years to see the merger come to fruition, waiting out the questions, the concerns, the nervous anticipation, any hesitancy.

The end result: It worked out splendidly.

“Right away I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Lampeter-Strasburg senior Hunter Hildenbrand said. “I remember thinking that it was going to be a lot tougher to win the section — let alone the district. But it’s been great for the whole league. It’s exciting to see some different teams, and to get to play against that level of competition and that level of football. We got to play Wyomissing, which has all of those big boys up front. It was a different kind of football.”

Berks County officials approached L-L officials with the plan in late 2017, L-L League football chairperson Tommy Long, Annville-Cleona’s athletic director, said at the time, and there was a draft proposal circulating through athletic directors from both leagues.

After a “not now” tabling of the discussions in 2018, and a reopening of talks leading to approval in 2020, the 2022 season saw the megaleague — at long last — take the field.

“We wanted to provide more flexibility for teams to build their schedules, and having a bigger pool of schools gives you more flexibility,” Long said. “It also gives you sections with more competitive balance. You have to look at the big picture. The goal was always doing what’s best for the kids in our area. The sections were competitive.”

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Success stories

All five section races did indeed go right down to the wire:

— Hempfield captured its first outright Section One championship since 1994 with a Week 10 win against Reading.

— Exeter, in its L-L League debut, won at Manheim Central in Week 10 for a 10-0 regular-season ride and to grab the outright Section Two title.

— Solanco capped a 10-0 regular season run with a must-have victory over Garden Spot in Week 10 to wrap up the outright Section Three banner for the first time since 1990.

— L-L League rookie Wyomissing needed a win over Lampeter-Strasburg in Week 10 to sew up the outright Section Four title and got it.

— Lancaster Catholic, playing in a first-place game in Week 10 at Schuylkill Valley, edged the Panthers for the outright Section Five flag.

“It was definitely a new experience for a lot of the players,” Cocalico senior Chuckie Drain said. “To get to play some different opponents that we’re not used to seeing was cool. I know I was excited about this, mostly because it was just going to be so different. We always figured the league would be the same, because it’s been the same league for years and years. When we first heard about this, we were like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’

“But this is opening up a lot of opportunities for everybody, and I’m somebody who is OK with change. It’s a more competitive league now, from top to bottom. Everyone has to fight for their spot.”

The final standings proved that.

“It was a really good year of competition for our program,” longtime Berks Catholic coach Rick Keeley said. “I mean, we played two teams that ended up going to the state semifinals in Cocalico and Wyomissing. That’s pretty good.”

“Very cool,” Daniel Boone coach Rob Flowers offered. “Take away the wins and the losses, and it was cool because our kids got to travel to some different places, and kids and schools and communities got to come to our facility. They got to experience something new as well, so overall it was a great experience.

“Our kids got to play at Elizabethtown, and they were undefeated at the time so there were a lot of people there. I think the new experiences were great for everybody.”

Perhaps more importantly, some teams that often struggle in the win-loss department — or struggle just to find games in general — got to play teams in the same or similar classification size, particularly in Section Five, where smaller programs like Kutztown, Pequea Valley and Northern Lebanon all picked up multiple wins and had competitive games.

“What I really liked was that we had competitively balanced scheduling in the sections,” Long said. “Even the teams that are looking to build their programs were competitive. And that was the goal.

“You like seeing teams like Pequea Valley and Kutztown get a couple of wins. Those programs have been struggling, so it was nice to see them get some excitement in their programs. They were playing against schools their own size, so that was something positive we were hoping for. It worked out as much as we’d hoped for.”

While football was a slam-dunk, Long said there are no plans for Berks County to join the L-L League in any other sports.

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Helping the smaller programs

When Berks County officials approached L-L League officials for the first time about potentially joining forces, Long and his lieutenants wanted to help the smaller schools in both leagues solve scheduling headaches. The Berks County League had 13 schools and uneven sections, and the smaller programs were always stuck in neutral.

After a 19-5 vote on May 6, 2020, those 13 teams joined the L-L as associate members. And a mega-conference was born.

“In the past, we had to play Conrad Weiser and Twin Valley and Wyomissing, and it was like, ‘Oh, gosh,’ ” Kutztown coach Larry Chester said. “When you’re playing against a district-finalist kind of a team every week, that’s rough.

“But having like-sized schools and the same number of players … we showed up a couple of times this season and had more players than our opponent. That’s something we never experience. So, this was definitely a positive for our program.”

“I really loved the new look,” Annville-Cleona senior Alex Long offered. “We had some great competition and saw a lot of new teams in Section Five … Hamburg, Schuylkill Valley, Kutztown. It made our section — and the whole league — better for sure. It really evened the playing field.

“We were excited to play teams that were a similar size to us, and a similar competition level to us that the new Berks teams were going to bring. We wanted to set the tone for how competitive our section could be, and I thought every team showed how competitive Section Five was going to be moving forward.”

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On the road again

One of the biggest concerns early on was the travel, which was discussed at great length in the early meetings before the Berks County teams came on board.

Kutztown, situated in the northeast corner of Berks County, has a 62-mile bus ride to Columbia. Annville-Cleona has a 60-mile bus ride to Kutztown. Fleetwood, located just south of Kutztown, has a 60-mile bus ride to Solanco. Conversely, Solanco has a 45-mile bus ride to Daniel Boone in Birdsboro, which is in northern Berks County. Hamburg, even farther north in Berks County, has a 50-mile bus ride to Pequea Valley in Kinzers in eastern Lancaster County.

Those were the longest bus rides for league games in the 2022 season.

“I know for us,” Chester said, “it’s tough getting on a bus at 10 at night after a game, knowing we had another hour-plus to drive home.”

The pro in the travel scenario: It’s just one bus ride per year. And next fall, the schedule will flip-flop, and the other team will travel.

“We were undefeated on the road, so we weren’t very quiet on the bus,” Alex Long said, chuckling. “We had some long rides, sure. Kutztown was a long drive. But the distances really didn’t matter because we just wanted to play a football game on a Friday night. And we knew going in that some trips were going to be far. But it didn’t bother us; you remember those things.”

The bus rides. The journey. Being with your teammates. It’s all part of the process.

Other than any travel concerns, one of the few hiccups so far: Tommy Long was quick to point out that 12 teams changed PIAA classifications after he aligned the sections for the first two-year cycle.

Section Four, for example, was stockpiled with district heavyweights like Wyomissing, Berks Catholic, Cocalico and Lampeter-Strasburg. Plus, Donegal, Elco and Octorara all went to the postseason in 2021, making it one of the toughest sections in the state.

Section Four should be tough as nails next fall as well.

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What’s next?

Tommy Long’s resolution for the next two-year cycle: He’s going to wait until next October for the freshest set of PIAA school-size numbers before putting the 2024-25 sections together, and he’s already anticipating some new-look sections with multiple teams shifting up or down.

The only con in that scenario: It will leave a smaller window for teams to schedule nonleague games for the next cycle.

“For the most part, I got nothing but good comments overall,” Tommy Long said. “There were some concerns that came up, of course, but some of the concerns you just can’t fix.”

Like those bus rides.

Other than the next round of section realignment, Long shouldn’t have much to fix moving forward. The L-L League/Berks County combo is on the books through the 2025 season. He said the powers that be will discuss the future of the league after Year Three of the deal.

But Year One? It was a touchdown.

“It was great,” Hildenbrand said. “The competition was incredible. The teams we got to play in Section Four … no game was a gimme. Cocalico and Wyomissing were both in the state semifinals, and that’s pretty good when two teams in your section go to the state semifinals.”

“We’ll definitely look back and say that we were the guinea pigs, but this move will make the whole league competitive for years to come,” Alex Long added. “Everyone is going to have to bring it every single week. The first year, for us, was a lot of fun.”

TWITTER: @JeffReinhart77

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