Blogger's note: The following if the fifth in a short series based on Observer-Reporter sports writer Mike Kovak's travels to various local high school football camps.
A warm summer breeze swept across the football field just above Avella High School. As a custodian ran a tractor, one lonely jug of water sat along an equipment shed. A few tackling pads and sleds sat idle while players and coaches sat inside the cafeteria eating lunch.
Even when camp is running, there isn't much more noise at Avella. With 19 players on its roster heading into the second week of training camp, the Eagles are a small but proud group. And when they suit back up to head toward the practice field, that unmistakable click-clack sound of spikes can barely be heard over the wind.
They don't get to run scrimmages against teammates. Instead, Avella works on drills and conditioning.
At Avella, that's just how it is.
"We're so much smaller than the other teams in the Black Hills Conference," second-year Avella coach Frank Gray said. "It makes it tough just to compete."
Avella hopes the 2009 season proves more competitive than 2008, when the Eagles drew national headlines for fielding a football team with 11 healthy players - one being female.
"No girls this year," Gray added.
Once one of the WPIAL's proudest football traditions - with multiple championship game appearances to back that up - Avella struggles to field a full team.
"We're always walking the halls trying to get guys to play," said senior Jesse Noble, an athletic wingback who can play quarterback when pressed.
Next year, Avella hopes to be playing in a different conference.
Losers of 27 straight and 51 of its past 52, Avella and coach Frank Gray plan to petition the WPIAL to join the Tri-County South Conference.
The Eagles, a WPIAL small-school power in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, used to compete in the Tri-County South. Currently, the conference is comprised of Beth-Center, California, Carmichaels, Geibel Catholic, Jefferson-Morgan, Mapletown, Monessen and West Greene.
"Those schools are closer to us in numbers. I feel that's where we belong," Gray said.