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I’m Matt Popchock, and I’m just getting started.
Pine-Richland head football coach Eric Kasperowicz says: His team’s 28-24 overtime win at Northern Eight rival North Allegheny was the biggest by the program since he took it over.
POPCHOCK SAYS: Pine-Richland has proven it belongs on the radar in Quad-A, and it goes back to the adage about having to beat “the man” in order to be “the man.” In this decade, Art Walker has established NA as the team to beat in its conference. Pittsburgh Central Catholic and Seneca Valley didn’t really earn that same level of respect until they finally got over “that stinkin’ mountain,” as Coach Kasper crowed to his players after the game, and now Pine-Richland has done the same.
It’s easy to see why the Rams’ offense has become one of the best in the Commonwealth under Kasper’s guidance. They run the hurry-up exceptionally well, and credit the Tigers for finally slowing it down in the second half.
Dual-threat quarterback Jeff Clemens was one tough customer that night, but my biggest positive for the Tigers in this game was the performance of Clay Byerly. He made big plays in North Allegheny’s secondary while matched up with Pine-Richland’s top receiver, D’ondre Gastion, and he converted a big fourth down in the fourth quarter that led to his own game-tying touchdown run. He also led his receiving corps with eight catches for 95 yards. Furthermore, when Pine-Richland came out and punched the proverbial bully in the mouth to the tune of an early 14-0 lead, Byerly’s kickoff return TD gave the Tigers a pulse right when they needed one.
Frankly, it wasn’t just Byerly who defended Pine-Richland’s passing game well after the rocky start. Riley Trueman knocked down a pass attempt on fourth down that would have sustained a potential game-winning drive by the Rams at the end of regulation, and linebacker Layne Skundrich recovered a fumble off a strip-sack that almost led to a game-winning drive in regulation for NA. Coach Walker has some real players on defense this year.
But Ben DiNucci was fabulous. In overtime, NA did its duty; it made DiNucci make a play, and he made a great one. His perfectly-placed lob to Mike Merhaut in the far corner of the zone–on 3rd-and-forever, to boot–really stole the game for Pine-Richland. It capped off a valiant 30-of-42 effort that amounted to 343 yards and two scores.
North Allegheny fans might argue Pine-Richland stole the game on the play preceding the game-winning touchdown, on which DiNucci was sacked as he got rid of the ball. I did not see ROOT Sports’ live telecast, obviously, but some within earshot of me at the Newman Stadium press box claimed they heard the TV crew say it should have been a game-clinching turnover in the Tigers’ favor. Instead, North Allegheny was credited with a sack, setting the stage for the decisive touchdown.
When I spoke to DiNucci in the locker room, he did not think he had fumbled, though he admitted he was worried officials might call it that way. His coach wasn’t quite as worried.
“He clearly was down,” Kasperowicz said. “I couldn’t see the recovery, and, secondly, it looked like the recovery would have taken place out of bounds.”
I’m going to back him on this one. For all the crap officials take over the course of a season, I’m going to give them a thumbs-up for getting this one right. It may have been a bad decision by DiNucci to put himself in that position by holding onto the ball so long, but it also looked like he shoveled the ball forward as he was brought down. I’d call it an incomplete pass at best and a sack at worst.
Here is a montage of Pine-Richland’s postgame celebration. This demonstrates precisely the pride and passion that makes high school football great in western Pennsylvania, and why I get a kick out of doing this:
As I said Monday, I wish ESPN would stay out of their spotlight on Fridays. But I digress.
And on a personal note, it was nice to see Coach Kasper, my former phys. ed. teacher at North Hills, an all-time football great at that program, and an all-time great human, enjoy what is certainly a watershed moment in his coaching career. But, again, I digress.
Pine-Richland has two winnable games coming up before it hosts the Indians. Week 3 will be the Rams’ first home game, against a Fox Chapel squad that, from my distant perspective, caught Seneca Valley feeling sorry for itself last week. The Foxes are still vulnerable, and so is Kiski Area, where the Rams will travel for a non-conference game in Week 4.
North Allegheny’s schedule, on the other hand, gets harder before it gets easier. The Tigers visit Pittsburgh Central Catholic this week, then host Upper St. Clair in a non-conference game before hosting Shaler in Week 5. So the balance of power in the Northern Eight may be shifting toward Pine-Richland, at least in the short term.
POPCHOCK SAYS: It’s time to announce my POPCHOCK ON PREPS High School Football Game of the Week for Week 3:
at Apollo-Ridge Vikings (2-0 in Class AA Allegheny Conference, 2-0 overall)
7:00 p.m. EDT – Owens Field
Why you should care: I’ll be taking the long hike up to Spring Church to see two Class of 2015 Pitt commits lock horns in a significant early-season game for their respective teams. Last year the Wildcats survived a wild regular season finale to win their first conference title since 1976. But for now, their road to a repeat goes through conference newcomer Apollo-Ridge, which is coming off a playoff berth in Class A, followed by comfortable wins over West Shamokin and Valley to begin this season. Similarly, Deer Lakes and West Shamokin posed little threat to Kittanning, which leads the conference in scoring offense and scoring defense. The Vikings are right behind them in both categories.
The player to watch for Kittanning is 6’4″, 220-pound tight end Nick Bowers, who earned his Pitt offer largely with his performance in that aforementioned 2013 regular season finale. He caught a touchdown and he threw for the winning one as head coach Frank Fabian’s wildcat quarterback in a 28-27 nail-biter at Shady Side Academy. Bowers rewrote the Kittanning record book as a receiver last season, and he’s begun 2014 as one of the leading pass-catchers in the WPIAL with 11 grabs for 185 yards and five TDs.
The player to watch for Apollo-Ridge is 6’1″, 170-pound wide receiver Tre Tipton, who is doing quite an impression of Kordell Stewart from his “Slash” days. His six receptions for 113 yards, in addition to his four rushes for 56 yards, have amounted to four TDs, and he’s also thrown for 128 yards and two TDs on 8-of-9 passing. Last year, with five interceptions, he helped make Apollo-Ridge’s pass defense one of the best in the district, but expect Pitt to use him as an offensive weapon.
Route 28 traffic be darned, it should be a fun night of football. When I first started covering the WPIAL, I was assigned a number of games in the Alle Valley, so I guess I’ve always had a bit of fondness for those communities, and it’ll be nice to revisit one.
More to come on this battle of future Panthers later…
Union High School (Roosevelt, Utah) head football coach Matt Labrum says: His entire team is suspended–all eighty players, mind you–due to reports of cyber-bullying and general misbehavior in the classroom. Only after fulfilling academic and community service obligations he has outlined can each player earn his spot back on the team.
POPCHOCK SAYS: This is an awesome story. What a relief it is not only to see a football coach put the game in its proper perspective, but to see him put his kids in their proper place, and to see that community rally around him because of it.
I’m not always going to pick on someone who gives preferential treatment to student-athletes. My own experience as a student-athlete, and as someone who has observed student-athletes, has taught me that nobody is above it. But bravo to Coach Labrum for trying to set a better example.
I wonder if he’d have the same support for his actions over here?
I’m Matt Popchock, and that’s all she wrote.
(h/t Tony Greco/Panther Digest, Pine-Richland Football, Apollo-Ridge Athletic Dept., FOX 10 Phoenix and The Deseret News)
(Featured images of Kittanning senior tight end Nick Bowers and Apollo-Ridge senior wide receiver Tre Tipton courtesy of Hudl)