Sept. 25, 2014: Popchock on Preps

Welcome to another edition of POPCHOCK ON PREPS, the first regular feature of the all-new POPCHOCK SAYS:! To see how Popchock can help cover and promote your company or event, visit Rubino Productions–serving the community in ways you haven’t imagined.

If you’re interested in buying photos from the POPCHOCK ON PREPS High School Football Game of the Week between Mount Lebanon and Penn Hills for editorial or personal use, visit Champs Photography online, or contact Jason Heffran at 878-302-7000. For custom player photos, “sportrait” concepts, team photos, or game action photos you can’t get anywhere else, ChampsPhoto.com is your one-stop shop.

Also, if you’re a baseball player looking for the best professional-caliber bat at the best possible price, be sure to visit the Kage Bat Company, or call toll-free 844-854-KAGE. Break your bat…not the bank!

Follow me on Twitter Friday night for more on Week 5 of the WPIAL football season, and be sure to tag your tweets #PopchockOnPreps so we can all join the conversation!

I’m Matt Popchock, and I’m just getting started.

Penn Hills quarterback Billy Kisner says: It took a team effort for the Indians to whip Mount Lebanon, 41-21, in a critical Quad-A Southeastern Conference contest, ending a four-game win streak by the Blue Devils in that series:

POPCHOCK SAYS: Kisner put it succinctly. Last year, Penn Hills didn’t always do enough to take control of games. In Week 4, it seized control from Lebo in the second half, although head coach John Peterman would probably stress his team still left a lot of points out there. A long touchdown run similar to the game’s first touchdown was called back on a holding penalty. A touchdown pass to Christian Randall-Posey, who otherwise had a fabulous game defensively (13 total tackles, 3 for loss), was dropped. Two would-be interceptions, one of which had some pick-six potential, weren’t secured.

Penn Hills QB and Pitt/PSU recruit Billy Kisner ran for 103 yards and one TD in Week 4.
Penn Hills QB and Pitt/Penn State recruit Billy Kisner ran for 103 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries in Week 4.

Nevertheless, Kisner impressed me as part of Penn Hills’ lethal ground game. The Indians, collectively, ran for 488 yards and had three guys top the century mark, including him. The Pitt/Penn State recruit, who later visited Heinz Field to watch the Panthers take on Iowa, finished with 159 all-purpose yards, 103 of which came on the ground, and a touchdown.

My concern with Penn Hills is not Kisner’s leadership. I hear faint rumblings here and there that, in the huddle, he likes the sound of his own voice a little too much (hey, you can’t expect anyone with Superman cleats to lack self-esteem). But he’s made it clear through deeds, if not words, that he’s a capable leader. My concern is that a team that abandons its passing game will eventually have that catch up to it. My other concern is, for all the off-tackle running Penn Hills likes to do, clever though some of their designed plays were, it might have trouble with a team that has skilled outside linebackers and other defenders who can flock to the ball more quickly than Mount Lebanon.

But while Kisner is weighing his college options, I think the most impressive story on the 2014 team continues to be senior tailback Te’Shan Campbell. He led all participants with 165 rushing yards on 14 carries, 60 of which came on his seventh TD run of the year. It was a big answer to a Blue Devil score that had cut Penn Hills’ lead to 17-14 in the second quarter.

I caught up with Campbell after the game too. He’s as big a fan of the play-fakes and general trickery his offense uses as I was:

Not gonna lie–it was weird seeing Mount Lebanon not simply play meat-and-potatoes football, like the good ol’ days. It ran 73 offensive plays in Week 4, so the Blue Devils offense, which moved with impressive efficiency thanks to quarterback Eddie Jenkins, was still on the trajectory head coach Mike Melnyk wanted from the beginning of the season. But Penn Hills made more “big plays,” and its defense stiffened as the game went on.

The playoff positioning in that conference is certainly not over, as both teams still have some tough games on the horizon. But this was a nice boost for Penn Hills.

Tribune-Review featured columnist Kevin Gorman says: Don’t throw former Carlynton head football coach Mauro Monz, who resigned suddenly after voicing concerns about player safety, under the bus without making the Carlynton school board grab a wheel:

POPCHOCK SAYS: I can see both sides of this. And apparently, so can Kevin, because, though he rightfully criticized the board, he also criticized Monz.

I understand what it’s like to serve an organization in good faith without any guarantee of that faith being rewarded. I also understand the negative message-sending to Monz’s players that inevitably comes with resignation.

Monz is right. Monz’s critics are also right. But Monz wins the tiebreaker, because the board, which just ripped their own hand-picked coach for not being qualified enough, are the ones acting like the bigger idiots.

It’s a problem no matter whose side is taken. But the bigger problem lies with the PIAA, which needs to take this incident as a cue to be less ham-fisted about biennial realignment.

Carlynton isn’t playing football in Class AA because of talent. It’s playing there because of technicality. Schools are required to send enrollment figures to the PIAA well in advance, and this year Carlynton was, literally, just a few students over the limit for Class A. Its football program has been spinning its tires for some time, and even before the season began, I thought moving it to Class AA was a disservice.

Nobody seems to complain when a team in a lower classification “plays up” in spite of substandard enrollment numbers. So why shouldn’t a team be allowed to “play down” for the greater good? Carlynton should have been permitted to appeal its realignment in the offseason and return to Class A until proving it could compete at a higher level, assuming enrollment was still appropriate by then.

After reading WPIAL czar Tim O’Malley’s recent remarks to the Trib, I fail to understand why he thinks the situation with Yough, which is playing up in Class AAA, is an apples-to-apples comparison. Looking at its most recent football roster, Yough has 38 kids. That isn’t many, but Yough doesn’t have to dress special-needs students just to field an eligible team. Yough, from an eligibility standpoint, is in better position to survive a key injury or two. Still, at least the WPIAL sounds amenable to moving Carlynton back before the next realignment.

Kevin Gorman says: Canon-McMillan head football coach Ron Coder resigned under more amicable circumstances.

POPCHOCK SAYS: I read an interesting take from one Facebook user on what might be in store for whomever succeeds interim coach Terry George (who, funnily enough, preceded Mauro Monz at Carlynton):

“This was a job I interviewed for two years ago. I have interviewed before a ‘group’ of interviewers, but this particular one included a table of 15+ looking at me, yet only three people asked the questions.”

I can’t corroborate this Facebook user, but I can say, based on my experience covering Canon-Mac’s hockey program, that the parents and decision-makers in that district are very vigilant. Head coach Yuri Krivokhija once cut one of his team’s best players–and a legacy, to boot–for what he confided to me were disciplinary reasons. Before long, the program, which “Coach Yuri” had led on a Cinderella Penguins Cup run just a couple years earlier, had a new coach.

Fortunately, Yuri landed on his feet quickly, taking over the Mount Lebanon program. Former hockey pro Terry Virtue, who coached Team Texas in the USA Hockey America’s Showcase and is a good friend of former Penguin Stu Barnes, struggled, but still got the Big Macs back to the playoffs. Hopefully, things work out similarly well for all those involved with Canon-Mac football, past and present.

Having said that, and having been embarrassingly late to the party on this, it’s time to announce my POPCHOCK ON PREPS High School Football Game of the Week for Week 5:

New Brighton Lions (4-0 in Class AA Midwestern Conference, 4-0 overall)

at Aliquippa Quips (4-0 in Class AA Midwestern Conference, 4-0 overall)

7:00 p.m. EDT – Carl A. Aschman Stadium (a.k.a. “The Pit”)

new_brighton_at_aliquippaPOPCHOCK SAYS: The MAC champs and WPIAL runners-up have won 40 straight conference games, and many of them have been one-sided. This week they’re welcoming a team not used to breathing the same rarefied air as the Quips. For many years, the Lions went out like sacrificial lambs, and last year Aliquippa gave them a 43-0 schooling.

That alone should be enough to make you stir in your seat. So what, you might ask, brings us to The Pit for this meeting?

Under head coach Joe Greco, New Brighton got off to consecutive 3-0 starts for the first time in forever. Then it really opened eyes last week by throttling Beaver, the team believed to be Aliquippa’s biggest threat this season.

Aliquippa tailback and Pitt/WVU prospect Kaezon Pugh ran for two touchdowns in Week 4.
Aliquippa tailback and Pitt/WVU prospect Kaezon Pugh ran for two touchdowns in Week 4.

The Lions offense, led by now full-time starting quarterback Payton Fath, ranks 10th in the district, and it is balanced. Fath relieved Gabe Greco last season while the latter recovered from an injury suffered against Aliquippa, and he kept the Lions on course for their first playoff berth in a decade. Another dual-threat QB, his nearly 900 offensive yards and nine total touchdowns entering Week 5 mirror his productivity during his 2013 tour of backup duty.

Fath’s top target, Blaine Williams, ranks among the top five receivers in Class AA with 303 yards on 15 catches. Senior tailback Scott Florence, who has run for 556 yards, is among the WPIAL’s leading scorers with 10 TDs.

But keeping up with the Quips offense, which is, statistically, the best in the WPIAL, will be a heavy proposition. At 47.3 points per game, they’re the second-highest scoring team in Class AA, and they have balance too.

Their leading receiver is Patrick Anderson, with seven catches for 142 yards and four TDs through Week 4. Anderson is rated as a top-30 prospect in the state by Panther Lair, and a top-60 receiver nationally by Panther Digest. He has been recruited by Pitt and picked up a West Virginia offer after his breakout performance in last year’s WPIAL Class AA Final:

Throwing to him is fellow senior Darrien Fields, who has completed 24 of 32 passes for 622 yards and eight scores without an interception. Fields ranks among the top five passers in Class AA, and he’s well protected by a group of linemen that could all play Division I football tomorrow. Keep an eye in particular on Arrington Gipson (6’1″, 294 lbs), who has received offers from Akron (Pitt’s forthcoming opponent) and Temple.

Behind them is Aliquippa’s typical combination of speed and power. Junior Kaezon Pugh (6’2″, 207 lbs), who also stars at linebacker, handles the “power” part. Pugh has run for 220 yards and six touchdowns, and he holds offers from Pitt and WVU after an impressive first two seasons of varsity ball:

He’s ranked among the top 25 running backs in America’s Class of 2016 by Panther Digest, and among the top 25 outside linebackers nationally by Panther Lair. The Quips’ leading rusher, however, is another player whose stock is rising, Hopewell transfer DiMantae Bronaugh, who was also an accomplished wrestler at his former school.

Don’t be surprised if those two share the workload in head coach Mike Zmijanac’s backfield, but don’t be surprised if Bronaugh, who has run for 368 yards and nine TDs, gets more of the glory, as he did in an easy Week 2 win over Laurel:

Most of Aliquippa’s inexperience is in its linebacking corps, Pugh not withstanding, and its secondary, so New Brighton will have to establish a good rhythm in the passing game, and get on the board early. However, points usually come at a premium against Aliquippa, No. 2 in the latest Pennsylvania Football News Class AA state rankings, which has been invincible in its home stadium for this and other good reasons.

Here are some other interesting Week 5 games throughout the WPIAL:

North Hills (3-0, 4-0)

at Pine-Richland (3-0, 4-0)

7:30 p.m. EDT

POPCHOCK SAYS: The old alma mater is starting to take on the identity of retired coach Jack McCurry, who mentored current coach Pat Carey, all over again. They play hard on both sides of the ball. They never quit. They never care if it’s pretty. They never act like they care who gets the credit, as long as the game ends up on the left side of the ledger. Having a healthy Jake Bruder back at QB has paid rich dividends, but the Indians aren’t a team of superstars. They’re just a bunch of hungry guys who are starting to play well together. Pine-Richland, this time, is the star-studded team, with an equally diligent tailback in Connor Slomka, and one of the best QBs in the state in Ben DiNucci. Former North Hills QB Eric Kasperowicz’s offense is very tough to slow down when it gets going. This is going to be a fantastic game, and I think Coach Kasper might just barely get the edge on his old colleague.

Woodland Hills (3-0, 4-0)

at Upper St. Clair (1-2, 1-3)

7:30 p.m. EDT

POPCHOCK SAYS: The Panthers falling out of the playoff picture? Say it ain’t so, Jim! The pressure will be on, and the spotlight will intensify, as ROOT Sports cameras are present for tape-delayed coverage of USC trying to get its you-know-what together. It has to be a culture shock for George Novak, too, who is more accustomed to seeing his own team get off to bad starts, and that clearly hasn’t been the case. The Wolverines will ride Miles Sanders, and the Panthers will try to make the rest of the team beat them while the Pirates are on ROOT Sports trying to beat the Reds. I think USC, relying upon hidden vigorish from The Gunner, will succeed and begin climbing out of its hole Friday, but be prepared for a nail-biter.

Knoch (2-1, 2-2)

at Hampton (3-0, 4-0)

7:00 p.m. EDT

POPCHOCK SAYS: If I could shoot a TV pilot called “Popchock’s Believe It Or Not,” the Hampton gridders might star. Woodland Hills, Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, Aliquippa, Central Valley, West Allegheny and South Fayette all made it to Heinz Field last year–and none of them are currently ahead of the Talbots in scoring defense. Granted, the Knights have played some solid defense as well, but that team is coming off a major letdown, and things might get slightly worse for them before they get better.

West Allegheny (4-0, 4-0)

at Montour (3-1, 3-1)

7:00 p.m. EDT

POPCHOCK SAYS: I wondered before Week 1 if Montour would go back from whence it came pre-Cerro, but the Spartans are hanging tough, and they’ve got some athletes. The one who’s impressed me the most is tailback David Haseleu, who can also be dangerous as a kick returner. But West A has plenty of answers defensively, and future St. Francis (Pa.) quarterback Andrew Koester leads a wildcat offense that shows no sign of slowing down.

Apollo-Ridge (4-0, 4-0)

at Highlands (4-0, 4-0)

7:00 p.m. EDT

POPCHOCK SAYS: Every time I find myself saying, “Well, the Allegheny Conference is Apollo-Ridge’s to lose,” the Vikings have another unbeaten team to conquer. They have the No. 3 total offense in the WPIAL, and they’re playing another team that loves to run. Elijah Jackson, the folcrum of the Highlands offense, ranks fifth in WPIAL rushing yardage. Undaunted thus far, Pitt recruit Tre Tipton and up-and-comer Duane Brown, who is coming off a seven-touchdown game against Shady Side, will place the burden of proof on the Golden Rams.

Mount Pleasant (4-0, 4-0)

at Washington (4-0, 4-0)

7:00 p.m. EDT

POPCHOCK SAYS: Alas, we must forget Mellors vs. McKenzie. It’s time for new Interstate Conference heavyweights to step into the ring, though the stakes sure haven’t changed. Malik Wells, who played commendably in McKenzie’s absence last year, will probably be Washington’s best bet in this contest. The Vikings’ backfield is a well-oiled machine now engineered by Trevor Salopek, who has also strengthened the Mount Pleasant secondary. In what should be a war of attrition, I like the Prexies because they’ve had better luck defending the run.

Fort Cherry (2-1, 2-2)

at Avonworth (3-0, 4-0)

7:00 p.m. EDT

POPCHOCK SAYS: The Rangers are just trying to find their footing in the Black Hills Conference playoff race, while the ‘Lopes are trying to keep pace with state champion North Catholic in their pursuit of a league title. Expect Avonworth to hold serve; Zach Chandler has moved up to No. 6 in the WPIAL passing yardage rankings, and the ‘Lopes have a defense built to shut down talented running back Nick Cook.

Rochester (0-4, 0-4)

at Brentwood (1-2, 2-2)

7:30 p.m. EDT – Thomas Jefferson Stadium

POPCHOCK SAYS: What the heck happened to Rochy? Not to pick on the Rams, but despite their youth movement, it’s hard to fathom their Class A dominance has become such a thing of the past. In any event, it just takes one big moment for a program fallen on hard times to change its image. Speaking of makeovers, there’s one taking place at Brentwood’s stadium, hence the relocation of this non-conference game. To break into the win column, Rochester will have to rely on what has actually become a pretty decent running game, and keep Brentwood QB Connor McWilliams on the sideline as much as possible.

Once again, I’ll be at The Pit Friday night to see if the Quips and their local college prospects can keep their perfect season alive.

Also, as a friendly reminder, visit ChampsPhoto.com to buy your own pics from the Mount Lebanon-Penn Hills game.

I’m Matt Popchock, and that’s all she wrote.

(h/t WTAE Operation Football, Penn Hills and Aliquippa Athletic Departments, Kevin Gorman/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Craig Meyer/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Chris Peak, Tony Greco, Jeff Snodgrass, Jason Heffran)

(Featured image of Penn Hills junior quarterback Billy Kisner courtesy of Jason Heffran/Champs Photography)

(Inserted images of Kisner and Aliquippa junior tailback Kaezon Pugh courtesy of Jason Heffran/Champs Photography and Hudl)

Author: Matt Popchock

Follow Popchock on Twitter @PopchockSays or contact him at mpopchock@verizon.net.

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