The UNICO All-State Charity Football Classic tried to revive on tradition with middling success. Now, it tries to revive another — hot weather football.
The Wyoming Valley Conference’s top seniors will take the field one more time as high schoolers as the 67th playing of the game takes place at 7 p.m. Friday at Wyoming Area. All proceeds from the game go to local charities.
The UNICO game started in 1951 as a season-ending event before it was eventually shifted to June. UNICO, though, moved the game to Thanksgiving morning in 2003, hoping to bring back a tradition of Turkey Day high school football that faded away in the mid to late 1970s. (There were actually two UNICO games in 2003 — in June for the 2003 seniors and Thanksgiving for the 2004 seniors).
The first UNICO Thanksgiving game was a huge success with an unseasonably warm morning and a big crowd at Wilkes-Barre Memorial Stadium. But there was a poor turnout the next season and the game was moved to Thanksgiving Eve and moved again to the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Neither switch generated a jump in attendance.
So now it’s back to June — albeit much earlier in the month than before. The head coaches — the Pioneers’ Dwayne Downing (Holy Redeemer) and the Miners’ Jeff Labatch (Meyers) — had five practices to get their teams ready for Friday night.
“Just put some base plays in, try to get an idea of who can play where,” Labatch said. “A lot of kids are playing a lot of positions and some are playing out of position. We’re just going to have fun. That’s what I told them from the beginning. Let’s enjoy this and have some fun.”
Neither Labatch nor Downing were able to get their full 40-player rosters together for practices, but that was expected with various school-ending activities and the conclusion of spring sports cutting into availability.
“It’s been a challenge,” Downing said. “It’s a great group of guys. Some guys took care of their bodies, but being in football shape is different than being in gym shape. Fantastic athletes, great group of guys, and they love football so that’s good.”
For some of the players, like Wyoming Area receiver Marc Minichello, the UNICO Game will be the final time they put on the pads. Minichello will be heading to the University of Pennsylvania where he will throw the javelin for the track team. Minichello won a gold medal in the javelin in the PIAA Class 2A state meet last weekend.
“It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to,” said Minichello, who was a Times Leader All-WVC selection after making 43 receptions during the regular season. “Last time to put on the pads, last time to play with a bunch of guys I know who are in love with the sport. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give my all for them and they’ll sacrifice for me, too, and we’ll get a really positive result.”
Nanticoke Area running back Eric Jeffries will continue playing football at Misericordia. His senior season, though, came to an abrupt end midway through when he dislocated the peroneal tendon in his right foot. Jeffries was well on his way to a 1,000-yard rushing season with 788 yards (7.7 per carry) and nine touchdowns.
“It’s actually really exciting. I’m haveing a great time,” said Jeffries, who underwent surgery after the injury. “It’s cool to meet a bunch of new guys, too, play with a bunch of guys I never played with before.
“I mean, normally you hate them all, but then when you come together as one team everybody is friends. It’s weird.”
Reach John Erzar at 570-991-6394 or on Twitter @TLJohnErzar