Saturday's East Juniata football game at Columbia-Montour Vo-tech was like a homecoming for me - for seven years starting in the mid-1990s, I had the Tech beat for Bloomsburg's Press-Enterprise.
During that time, I watched CMVT slide through 38 consecutive losses - briefly, the longest active losing streak in the state, snapped in the state's first quadruple-overtime game - and stayed long enough to see the program put together its first winning campaign in school history.
I saw East Juniata more than a few times back then, both against the Rams and Montgomery, another team I covered for yet another paper. I saw the Tigers go through four coaches before Tom Feltman took the helm - in fact, I'm sure I covered East Juniata when Tom was still playing.
The press box at Tech has always been a fun place to cover a game, although I admit disappointment that the food stand stopped selling French bread pizza. I was even more disappointed when Jim Huntley, longtime athletic director for the tech school, told me of the troubles facing the All-American Football Conference, in which both the Rams and Tigers play.
It started with a random observation - that, for the second year in a row, the matchup between these two teams pitted a pair of returning District 4 playoff teams. None of us would have thought such a thing possible 10 or 12 years ago - and, if you ask me, the AAFC is part of the reason these two small teams with big classifications (both are Class AAA due to cooperative programs) have a chance at making the postseason field.
It was known at the start of this season that Northwest, the defending champ, was done in the league at the end of the season, choosing to move back to the Wyoming Valley Conference in District 2. Huntley tells me that Pottsville's Nativity is set to leave the AAFC next year as well.
And then he dropped a bombshell - so, he said, is East Juniata. Huntley, who was one of the organizers of the AAFC, said the Tigers might be headed to the Twin Valley Conference. I asked Feltman about it after the game, and he didn't have much to say on the topic.
I can't argue that taking a couple teams out of the AAFC makes it harder to schedule a season - a few parochial schools that have been in the league have either folded or merged. Pulling Nativity and Northwest out of the pie leaves only five teams, and the new wave of all-sports leagues like District 4's Heartland Conference, or the Mountain League, means few football programs are available as potential members to shore up the AAFC.
But I wonder why anyone thinks it's a good idea to take the Tigers into a conference where they're more likely to be a chance at Class AAA power points for smaller, but stronger, programs than a playoff team.
Bob Quick, the Tech coach for six of the seven years I covered the Rams, moved Bloomsburg out of the mighty CSC-I into a league with similarly sized schools when he coached there. Today, Bloomsburg is a threat to multiple state champion Southern Columbia.
The lesson: You need to play to your strengths, but not above your limits. The AAFC gave East Juniata a chance to do just that, to try and build a stronger program over time while gaining the experience of playoff football against established programs like Selinsgrove and Jersey Shore, which it has faced over the past two years in districts.
Feltman has never backed off from a challenge, and those playoff appearances prove it. He's told me that he would relish a chance to include cross-county rival Juniata on his schedule (an odd coincidence, with the Indians preparing to leave the Twin Valley for the Mountain League - more so when you consider that some of the loudest complaints about Juniata's move came from smaller TVL schools that often accumulated winning records against the larger Indians).
But as much as I supported the move of Juniata into the Mountain League - a position for which I've been chastised - I can't fathom the thought process that would take East Juniata out of the AAFC.
There is an effort under way to prop up the TVL, at least somewhat for East Juniata's benefit. If the soccer teams are worth that much effort, the football team should be, too. The AAFC is a better home for the Tigers than the Twin Valley, and deserves the same consideration as the TVL.
Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.