In the coaching business, there’s an old adage that says you never want to be the first coach to replace a legend. Instead, it’s better to be the one who comes after the replacement — and Jon LeDonne is living proof.
Debate all you want about former Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz and his unceremonious exit from the program in 2020, following his fourth WPIAL title and second PIAA championship in eight years at the school. Allegations of hazing and bullying within the program were never proven but were cited as reasons for his removal. Still, there’s no doubt Kasperowicz was as beloved and as successful as any coach in Pine-Richland history — and whoever was chosen to replace him would be facing a nearly insurmountable task.
Enter Steve Campos, who was met with fierce resistance from the Pine-Richland fan base immediately after his hiring. The fans never seemed to fully embrace him as the man to lead the Rams and constantly clamored for Kasperowicz’s return, especially after Pine-Richland sputtered to an 0-3 start to begin Campos’ tenure. But Campos helped turn things around with a four-game winning streak, and the Rams eventually finished the season with a respectable record of 7-5 after falling to eventual WPIAL and PIAA champion Penn-Trafford in the WPIAL semifinals.
All things considered, Campos did a rather admirable job in the face of never-ending criticism and backlash from the community. But the pressure and expectations of upholding the dynasty Kasperowicz left behind undoubtedly took their toll, and Campos resigned after one season while citing lingering health concerns.
With the Rams seeking a third head coach in less than two years last offseason, many believed Kasperowicz would be given a second chance at Pine-Richland. Instead, he never even received an interview after re-applying for his old job, and the position went to another prominent Western Pennsylvania coach with a championship pedigree.
It was a stunning move nobody saw coming, but it seems pretty clear to say it now — the Rams got it right this time.
“Everyone talked about it being a rebuilding year for Pine-Richland, but we’re upholding that tradition and success that’s been built here over the last 15, 20, 30 years,” LeDonne said. “I’m just excited to be a part of it with them.”
Few would have guessed it after a 1-3 start in September, but Pine-Richland will once again be playing for a WPIAL championship after knocking off Woodland Hills with a 23-12 win Friday night. The Rams will make their fifth WPIAL finals appearance in the past six years when they take on Upper St. Clair in the Class 5A title game next week at Norwin High School.
Senior quarterback Ryan Palmieri led the way for the Rams Friday with another strong rushing performance, racking up 135 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 33 carries in the win vs. the Wolverines. And there might be no better example of the imprint LeDonne has had on this Pine-Richland team than Palmieri’s emergence as one of the WPIAL’s top rushing quarterbacks.
“We’ve really bonded and really became a family,” Palmieri said. “They’re a great coaching staff, and we’re really fortunate that they chose to come over here.”
After a 13-3 loss to Seneca Valley on Sept. 16 dropped the Rams’ record to 1-3, LeDonne decided to make a change, elevating Palmieri into the starting quarterback role. Pine-Richland hasn’t lost since, winning eight games in a row by a combined score of 302-101. And Palmieri has raced past the 1,000-yard mark, now boasting 202 carries for 1,149 yards and 19 rushing TDs after his big game Friday.
“That’s been the theme all year. We’re going to lean on Ryan,” LeDonne said. “The leadership that he brings — the offense rallies around him.”
LeDonne did plenty of winning during his five-year stint at Penn Hills from 2017-21, highlighted by the Indians capturing WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A titles in 2018. More importantly, though, he fostered a culture of kinship and togetherness with the open-door policy at his home in Gibsonia, where he and his wife, Maggie, often hosted players for dinners, sleepovers and other gatherings over the holidays.
Although it was hard for LeDonne to leave those relationships with his Penn Hills players behind, getting the opportunity to coach in his home school district at one of the WPIAL’s premier programs was too perfect for him to pass up. He still will forever be tied to the Indians for what they accomplished in 2018, and he was born and raised in Aliquippa. But there’s no doubt he feels right at home at Pine-Richland, and the feeling is surely mutual for the Rams’ rabid fan base.
“We talked about it earlier in the year, the shaky start. There were definitely some doubters,” LeDonne said. “The kids believed and bought into what we’re doing, so we’re excited to get back to the championship.”