Goin' Campin' is Varsity Blog's series that hits the road to give you notes, quotes, anecdotes and everything else from district football preseason camps.
I won't profess to know how every WPIAL team operates its preseason training camp. But over the decades, I've seen a lot of training camps - and must say West Allegheny's is one of a kind.
The camp is so well managed and organized. That's impressive. But that's not what makes this camp different. How how many teams have boosters cook lunch with homemade food every day for the players and staff? Good food, too. And how many teams have an 88-year-old mother of the head coach helping to cook lunch? Laverne Palko, mother of head coach Bob Palko, has been helping with training camp lunches for a few years, and there she was today, in the kitchen of the cafeteria, slicing Italian bread and making her famous homemade croutons (pictured).
"People eat them like potato chips," said Bob Palko.
Laverne and Bob Palko are pictured below.
And how many teams have people who have no affiliation with the team drive from the other side of the state every year and spend two weeks helping with lunch and whatever else at camp?
But that's what you have at West Allegheny. Coach Bob Palko creates an atmosphere that isn't found at many places. Booster club members cook lunch every day in the school cafeteria. And this isn't bad cafeteria food. It's as good as a restaurant. You might have anything from ham and scalloped potatoes, to today's meatball sandwich and potato soup (few sports writers turn down free food). And don't forget those Mama Palko croutons for the salad.
Also at the camp, high school girl students are managers and help with trainers at camp. Pre-teenage sons of assistant coaches sometimes spend two weeks at West Allegheny, acting as managers or just wanting to be around Dad and the team. Heck, Tyler and Luke Palko (Bob's sons) were fixtures at the camp as tykes before they played at West Allegheny.
"Dad what's a jagoff," said the young son of offensive coordinator Dan Marshall as they left the cafeteria today.
Too funny. I couldn't hear Marshall's answer.
"It really is like a family here," said defensive coordinator Bryan Cornell, an assistant for 17 years. "I'm not just saying that. It's true. It's really all because of Bob."
Cornell's young son was on the sideline during morning practice and ate lunch next to his Dad.
Palko has been doing camp this way for years and it must work, right? Is he at legendary status yet? The guy has won seven WPIAL titles in 19 years as coach. No other WPIAL coach has won seven outright.
And check this out: Palko and his program are so highly thought of by 65-year-old Bill Hanczar and his wife, Deb, that they drive from Williamsport every year at this time, stay with family in the West Allegheny district, and help cook food and serve lunch to the team.
Crazy? Well Bill Hanczar is a 1967 West Allegheny graduate who comes to some games every year. But he has no child or relative on the team.
"Coach Palko knew that I was coming to games, so he invited me to get closer to things if I wanted," said Bill Hanczar. "I've been coming and helping at lunches and hanging out at camp for 10 years now."
But his wife didn't go to West Allegheny and she also helps out. (Bill is pictured taking lunch trays from players today).
"We just love it," said Bill Hanczar. "I pretty much stay on the cleanup side and she stays on the kitchen side. It really is just a family here."
Then there is Laverne Palko, smiling while she slices the bread for those croutons. So what makes an 88-year-old spend August afternoons for two weeks, working in a cafeteria for high school football players? Shouldn't she be playing bridge or watching game shows?
"My husband has been gone for nine years," said Laverne Palko. "He used to come to all the practices. It's for the kids and I want to support my son. He's all about the kids, and that means so am I."
The blonde boys
There are a lot of white heads at West Allegheny.
Per tradition, many of the players dyed their hair blonde before the start of preseason camp. Coach Palko is pictured below addressing the blonde bombers
Championship caliber - again
West Allegheny has won two consecutive WPIAL titles and has to be considered a favorite for a third. A number of key players return. Running back-defensive back Chayse Dillon is one of the best players in Class AAA. Quarterback Andrew Koester already has committed to St. Francis, Pa. Tight end-linebacker Sean Orsini is a force and Armand Dellovade returns at linebacker and running back.
Plus, there are some other good-looking athletes and linemen who might not have seen loads of varsity time in the past. It should be just another in a long line of top teams at West Allegheny.
"I think we've all improved as a team," Koester said. "Our goals are the same, but we're thinking a little bigger this year. Obviously, Erie Prep has beaten us the last two years [in the state playoffs]. We'd like to go far enough to get another chance at them."
Here is one guy's Class AAA preseason rankings.
1. West Allegheny
2. Thomas Jefferson
4. Central Valley
More West Allegheny
**** Watch 6-4, 270-pound lineman Derek Klontz. Only a junior with a lot of potential.
**** West Allegheny ran out of the wildcat formation with great success the past few years. You wonder if we will see it as much this year because of Koester, who is more of a dropback QB.
**** Many high school teams now film their practices, especially in the preseason. West Allegheny also films all of its practices - from two angles. From the side and the end zone. Palko always seems to be up on technology and has new "toys." The film from the end zone is taken from a "HI-POD." It is a camera on a long pole (pictured to the left).
Actually, Palko said his team has used the "HI-POD" for three seasons. I'm sure some other WPIAL teams have it, but I just don't remember seeing it a lot.
**** Koester (6-4, 190) has committed to St. Francis. He also is a talented basketball player and he said he could possibly have a chance to join St. Francis' basketball team at some point. But as Koester said, "It definitely would be difficult with the time commitment to do both. Football is my priority. But if it's possible, it would be fun to try."
**** So far this week, it has been unusually cool for preseason football practice. But the West Allegheny "blonde bombers" cool off in ice tubs after practice. (picture below). Actually, it's just to ice down sore muscles.
And finally ...
Shawndale Jones, a basketball guard who averaged 18 points a game last season as a sophomore at North Hills, has left the school and enrolled at Kiski School, a prep school in Saltsburg. Jones "reclassified" and is a sophomore again at Kiski. He also will play football at Kiski School.