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Official Review by Sean Rowland, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The State of Pennsylvania has it right when it comes to High School Football. After District champions are crowned and state rounds are completed, the two teams left standing in each classification face off for the state title in Hershey, as they have since 1998. The location of the game is perfect as it is near the center of the state and Hershey is a destination that is fun for the whole family to spend a mid-December weekend. Hersheypark Stadium, as the name infers, is within the Hersheypark entertainment complex and the facility has been hosting a wide variety of sporting events and concerts since 1939. Fans can expect a basic, no-frills stadium often with seasonably cold weather. But the growing tradition and exciting location makes this a fun event, especially for those from the Keystone State.
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There is not much to make a meal out of the concession stands, however there are enough choices to fulfill someone looking to get through the afternoon or evening. Prices are on the higher side as a Chicken/Fries combo costs $9, while a Cheeseburger is $6.50. There are also Hot Dogs ($2.50) and Italian Sausage Sandwiches ($4.75), along with a variety of snacks, including Funnel Cake ($5.50). If there is one thing to get, it has to be the Hot Cocoa...because, Hershey right?
The stadium is set up with nearly identical sideline seating and there are no bleachers behind the end zones. Security is fairly tight for these games as fans have to pass metal detectors upon entering and it's important to realize going in that once you pass through the entrance, you are not allowed to go to the other side. Each school gets a side and though there are no signs, it is easy enough to follow the fans wearing their school colors. As a neutral, the "West Stand" is the best side to pick as that can offer a bit more protection against the often prevailing west wind (via the press box or top wall).
This certainly is an old stadium and the approaching view with the plain, stacked columns on the exterior confirms that. From the concourse, openings lead to the bottom of the seating sections and since a few stairs are needed, an open row at ground level is in place for those in wheelchairs. The actual seats are bleachers that are set on a concrete base and the pitch of the seats is shallow enough that fans directly in front can get in the way of seeing the field (except near the top of the section). However, games aren't packed enough to make this a problem. The only scoreboard is behind the south end zone and it offers the basics. Even though the stadium is bland, the outside surroundings are interesting as roller coasters from the amusement park can be seen in the distance (especially fun when lit up at night). If there is daylight, a pleasant view is behind the south end zone, where one can see the beautiful Milton Hershey School and the "Welcome to Hershey" sign on their lawn.
Even though this is a high school event, there are some professional-style elements in the form of contests and fan games during the halftime break. There may even be a T-Shirt Toss! After the game is over and a champion is crowned, be sure to fight the likely cold a few minutes longer to see the trophy presentation. The ceremony occurs quickly after the final whistle and is enjoyable to see, especially with the tradition of also hoisting a large Hershey's Chocolate Bar.
Hershey is of course home of the famous chocolate and candy factory and that theme dominates this small town of about 14,000. It is a destination for people of all ages and a weekend spent here is quite enjoyable. At the center of the action is Hersheypark, a huge amusement park right next to the football stadium. Even though the PIAA championships are offseason for the park, it is open in December and turned into a winter wonderland with lights, Santa and ice skating. Also within walking distance from the stadium is Chocolate World. Visitors can take an interactive look at the Hershey factory along with buying souvenirs and any piece of chocolate imaginable. The entire complex includes historic Hersheypark Arena and Giant Center. The Hershey Bears of the AHL have played in both and the old arena is often open. It is a magical, historic hockey barn that stadium aficionados should definitely check out. The Giant Center is the relative new home for the Bears and it is also a terrific building in its own right.
Aside from the park, there are plenty of other attractions in Hershey including a great museum (The Hershey Story) and beautiful gardens (Hershey Gardens). For food, you do have to leave the Hersheypark complex, but there are still great spots in town along Chocolate Ave. However, I would head to a couple spots not on the main boulevard. Up on the hill just north of town is Hotel Hershey and it has a few terrific places to eat with amazing chocolate desserts. The other choice is for beer lovers as the Troegs Brewing Company is also in town. They give tours with samples and have a bar that serves really good food to go with the equally good beer.
Pennsylvania takes its high school football seriously. Not just Western PA, but it is big in the Eastern half too (especially the Lehigh Valley). Each school that makes it to Hershey typically brings plenty of students, family and locals to support and cheer the team. The AAA Championship that I attended featured a crowd of 5,289. As you would expect, each side is quite vocal and animated during the game and each play is typically met with a roar of approval from one sideline. Of course, it needs to be mentioned that there are some bad seeds and overbearing parents. It may seem like a stereotype, but I heard at least a couple mind-boggling comments from idiot parents. Even though there are very few, stupid things are occasionally yelled by those who are supposed to be role-models.
Hershey is located about 15 miles east of Harrisburg in the south-central part of Pennsylvania and many of the state's primary highways merge into the area. From the north, I-81 is the interstate to use and from exit 80, it takes about 15 minutes to reach town. The Turnpike (I-76) is the other option from the south and that takes longer to reach the area, depending on the direction. There are some two-lane country roads needed before getting into Hershey. Once in town, visitors to the game have to enter the Hersheypark complex (from Hersheypark Drive). The signs are very clear on how to reach the stadium's parking, which is free. Traffic isn't too bad, but the town can be busy around the holidays.
Inside the stadium, concourses are small, but there is enough space for the average football crowd. Same goes for the bathrooms, which are also on the small side.
A ticket for $8 allows access into each game for the day and the parking is free. Winning a state championship in High School is quite a moment and seeing that competition is exciting. There are a couple things to prepare for if deciding to attend...first, understand that the quality of football is vastly inferior to the college game. Secondly, be sure to bundle up as the weather in mid-December is often cold. Secondary prices for the PIAA championships are decent as programs cost $5, while the concession food ranges from $3 to $9.
On the side of the West Stand is a door for entrance to the "Barking Lot," an interesting thing for a stadium. The Barking Lot is actually for the Amusement Park next door as visitors who bring their pets have the option to utilize this kennel for the day.
After each game, shirts and sweatshirts go on sale at the box office for the school that won the championship. Though it is a money-making venture, realize that it's not like fans can go to their local store or shop online for championship apparel. This is a nice option for fans to buy a memento and have something they will likely wear for a long time.
Hersheypark Stadium is an old, bare-bones facility that for one December weekend, becomes the center of the High School world in Pennsylvania. The state football championships bring in people from all sections of the state to root on their local team. Even better, is that the opportunity to compete for a state title means a weekend in Hershey, a fun place with tons to see and do, especially during the holiday season.
Follow all of Sean's journeys at Stadium and Arena Visits.
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200 East Hershey Park Drive
Hershey, PA 17033
27 W. Chocolate Rd.
Hershey, PA 17033
100 Hotel Rd.
Hershey, PA 17033
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