“Border War” revisits old rivalry

Lori Chase
Port Allegany Reporter Argus
July 15, 2010

When the Port Allegany High School and Portville Central School alumni football teams line up for this Saturday afternoon’s kickoff at Gator Field, it will mark the first time the Gators and Panthers have knocked helmets since 1984. But while younger area fans have no memories of any rivalry between the two schools, during the heyday of the Border Conference, games with Bolivar, Portville, and Allegany were often just as hotly contested as the ones against their Allegheny Mountain League brethren south of the state line. In fact, for a period of time the Panthers even supplanted Smethport as Port High’s traditional end-of-season opponent.

According to data compiled by the Portville alumni website, Port Allegany won the first game between the two teams in 1936. They played just four more times between then and 1959, before beginning a series that would continue for the next 25 years. The Gators won most of those early games, but the New York squad dominated the 1970s and ’80s to build an 18-11 edge in the series.

The last Port Allegany win came in 1980. Both teams entered the Oct. 25 game unbeaten and ranked among the Big 30’s best in both offense and defense, with defending Border champ Portville (6-0) riding a 13-game winning streak and Port High (7-0-1) seeking to complete its first undefeated season since 1968.

It wasn’t a day for offensive fireworks; a constant downpour and some stingy defense led to the teams managing a single pass completion apiece and combining for just 196 yards of total offense.

Port Allegany quarterback Mark Petzold made his lone completion count, finding Rick Wilson alone behind the Portville defense for a 27-yard touchdown just before halftime. After that, it was up to the D. Mud dripping off their facemasks, they dug in, forced four turnovers, and never let the Panthers escape beyond their own 40-yard line. Charlie Caskey added two second-half field goals and Mike Wellman intercepted a pair of errant Panther passes – nearly returning the second one for a touchdown while the final seconds ticked off the clock – as the Gators celebrated a soggy Homecoming afternoon in “The Swamp” with a 13-0 victory.

Portville captured the next four meetings. In 1984, Big 30 Player of the Year Jon Gardner tossed four touchdown passes in the Panthers’ 36-6 victory at Gator Field; two weeks later, they downed Smethport 14-7 in a battle of unbeatens to clinch the conference title.

It would be the final one. Following the departures of Emporium and Bradford Central Christian the year before, the league was down to five teams. Seeking a more stable schedule and a chance at a playoff game in Rich Stadium, Portville and Allegany applied to join the Western New York Football Federation’s Chautauqua County-based Division VIII, and the Border Conference faded into history after 19 seasons.

The remaining Pennsylvania schools began discussions on expanding the AML, with Port Allegany principal Ed Babcock leading the way. The revamped 12-team league began play in 1986, the Gators defeating Johnsonburg 23-14 to claim the first championship game, and District 9 added its own playoffs the following year.

So the Panthers, Bolivar Bulldogs, and Allegany Blue Devils gave way to Wolves, Rams, and Golden Tide on Port’s schedule, something that had to happen to make the district and state playoff systems work … but there are still many people, including this writer, who remember those “border wars” with fondness.

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