KANE – Port Allegany head coach Justin Bienkowski, a 1998 Johnsonburg High School graduate, will lead the North squad in the 6th Annual Frank Varischetti All-Star Football Game at Varischetti Field in Brockway on Friday (7 p.m.).
Bienkowski and his staff ran the team through a brisk practice on Monday on the Wolves' practice field. Before the workout, he talked about the challenge he and his staff face, putting together a game plan in five days.
"It's just a matter of putting guys in the spots their high school coaches told us they were comfortable with and teaching them the terminology we use. These guys are all-stars for a reason. They know how to block, tackle, run, catch, and throw, so it's just a matter of getting everybody on the same page," said the former Ram.
The North is comprised of players from Ridgway, Kane, Elk County Catholic, St. Marys, Bradford, Otto-Eldred, and Smethport – teams that played in the IU9 Bubble last fall. They'll go up against the South that includes athletes from Brockway, Brookville, Curwensville, Central Clarion, DuBois, Karns City, Keystone, Moniteau, Punxsutawney, Redbank Valley, and Union/AC Valley. Those teams all played seven games plus a scrimmage, while the IU9 teams played six games with no scrimmage. Redbank won the Class A District 9 title, and Karns City defeated Brookville for the 2A crown.
From the outside looking in, players on the South have perhaps more flashiness with the likes of Brookville quarterback Jack Krug, Clarion-Central QB Cal German, and a slew of speedy receivers and backs.
"There's a little bit of an intimidation factor with the kids, there's a little bit of a nervous factor, there's an uneasy feeling, but at the end of the day, it's just a bunch of all-stars playing football. No more and no less," Bienkowski said. "You have to be living under a rock to not know the capabilities Jack Krug has, and there are some big boys from Karns City, but darn it, we have some talented kids on our team."
The North is loaded with multi-sport players who excelled in football, basketball, wrestling, baseball, and track and field.
"We have athletes. We preach that in our program and encourage guys to play multiple sports. I know other coaches in the North preach the same," Bienkowski said. "It's a cool experience. We have some kids here that kind of have the right to be able to say, 'we're going to do our thing, coach.' We want to let them go and show their talents. It's great to be around these kids."
During the week, former rivals will bond and form friendships. It's something players from the past always bring up about the experience.
"I told them towards the end of practice (Sunday) it was so nice to see them together as a team because for the last three or four years, they've been trying to kick the crap out of each other, and now they're on the same team trying to win a football game," said Bienkowski.
The North coach wants his players to make the most of the week.
"Most years in these all-star games in small-town PA, it's going to be the last football experience for many of them. We want to make it as positive as we can. It's cool to see these guys come together, and we're looking forward to helping them create memories."
Friday's game will consist of four 15 minutes quarters instead of the 12 played in high school. Bienkowski talked about the change.
"At some point, I realized in my other all-star experiences I coached in, it's almost like OK this is too much but you want to get the 32 kids as much playing time as you can so, it helps in that aspect."
There is no overtime if tied at the end of regulation.
Bienkowski and his staff are looking forward to getting the most out of their team to get a win.
"I told them they may be playing out of the position they're used to or maybe getting coached different from what they're used to, but it's just a matter of learning everybody's strengths and weaknesses. I wouldn't say put the best 11 out there because they're all good athletes. It's just a matter of getting the kids time and getting them comfortable with the system we're trying to run," the coach said.
Bienkowski looks to match the South's ability to move the ball. He'll have Kane's Zuke Smith and Ridgway's Ben Briggs quarterbacking with a slew of backs and receivers, including Alex Bon, Dominic Cherry and Ricky Delhunty of the Elkers, Bobby Rumcik and Josh Buhl of the Wolves, Elk County Catholic's Sam Kaul; Jacob Kline, and Mitchell Reiter of the Dutch, Smethport's Braeden Johnson, and TJ Vanscoter of Otto-Eldred.
"We're going to try to throw the ball around. We have athleticism with Zuke and Ben, athletes they can throw to, and some good guys up front. So, we're going to use that. In our program (Port Allegany), we are as 50-50 running and passing as we can be. The rules of this game [encourage] us to throw the ball more, so we're going to try to sling it around," Bienkowski said. "We're going to play fast and get as much out of the kids while having as much fun as we can. After day one, I noticed we have 32 kids that even though they're all good, they want to get better."
The Johnsonburg grad praised those that make the Varischetti game possible.
"The assistants and I were talking about how well they lay this out and how organized it is. Nick (Hoffman – game manager) and Peter (Varischetti) and his family, the company, and everybody involved do a great job. It's cool being a part of this," said Bienkowski while also pointing out the 17 - $1,000 scholarships being presented before the game. "It's first-class, and that's a big plus. It's just another way they help out. I know [the players] have been talking about it being an opportunity they're happy to have. They want to play a football game, but college is expensive."
Due to COVID-19, last year's game was moved from late June to August 7. No fans were admitted inside, but they did gather outside the fence for the AML's (North) 24-6 win. The atmosphere was great under the circumstances, but Bienkowsk is looking forward to a huge crowd in the bleachers.
"I think it's going to be cool. There's going to be kind of a tailgate atmosphere that started last year. I'm excited for the kids to play in front of a big crowd. It's something a lot of them didn't get last season. They're going to have a pre-game meal, they're going to flip the switch, and it's going to be a normal Friday night. I'm looking forward to it."
The Port Allegany staff of Chad Saltsman, Seth Lowery, Brian Neal, Cliff Fillhart, and Kyle Bachman will be assisting Bienkowski.
This will be the former Ram's first stint as an all-star head coach. He was an assistant for Kane's Todd Silfies in the 2017 game won by the AML 38-10. He also assisted Pennsylvania in its 53-12 win over New York in the 2013 Big 30 Charities Classic and for the West in the 2016 PFSCA East-West All-Star Game won by the East 20-19.
The North team practiced in Smethport Tuesday, Port Allegany Wednesday, and Brockway on Thursday.
Tickets will be available at the gate.
The AML (North) has won four of the five games – including 24-6 last season. The KSAC (South) won the 2019 game – 20-7.
Friday's action will be broadcast on WKBI – 93.9 FM – B94.