The old adage says that defense wins championships, and Pine-Richland is living proof.

The Rams pummeled, punished and pulverized an outmatched Upper St. Clair team from beginning to end on Saturday afternoon, capturing the WPIAL Class 5A title with a 34-3 beatdown at Norwin High School. It’s the fifth WPIAL title in the last nine years for Pine-Richland and eighth overall for the school.

After starting the season 1-3, Pine-Richland has now won nine games in a row not because of any one star player, but because the Rams are so sound in all three phases of the game on offense, defense and special teams. That’s a credit to the culture Jon LeDonne has instilled in his first year at the school after leaving his post at Penn Hills, where he won WPIAL and PIAA titles in 2018.

LeDonne now joins Bob Palko (West Allegheny, Mt. Lebanon) and Art Walker (Central Catholic, North Allegheny) as the only coaches to win WPIAL titles at multiple schools in the past 20 years.

“It was a really tough decision to leave Penn Hills, knowing what we had there,” LeDonne said. “But I know what we’ve got in this community. … I’m excited to bring this back home.”

The final stats from the game might look like a misprint at first glance. Pine-Richland’s vaunted defense held standout Panthers running back Jamaal Brown to only 16 yards on 14 carries, and Upper St. Clair finished with minus-26 yards rushing overall thanks to seven Rams sacks.

Senior defensive ends Joey Perry and John Rottinghaus played like men possessed, flying all over the field and generating heavy pressure on Panthers freshman quarterback Ethan Hellman. Perry and Rottinghaus finished with three sacks apiece, while Perry notched nine total tackles and Rottinghaus tallied six.

“We talked about it all week — rallying to the football, flying around, tackling everything that moved,” LeDonne said. “Our defensive line doesn’t get enough credit for what they do. They showed out the last several weeks.”

Senior quarterback Ryan Palmieri turned in another workmanlike effort for Pine-Richland, completing 8 of 13 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown to go with 17 carries for 73 yards and two scores. He is now up to 1,416 yards rushing with 25 total TDs on the season.

Pine-Richland’s Ryan Palmieri (25) celebrates a touchdown against Upper St. Clair during the WPIAL Class 5A championship game Saturday at Norwin High School. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

“[Our offensive line] has been great all year. There hasn’t been a defensive line who has been able to stop them,” Palmieri said. “We knew all week we would have to dominate the line of scrimmage to win this game.”

Moments after a successful gamble by LeDonne on a fake punt on fourth-and-4, Palmieri cashed in on a 4-yard TD plunge to give the Rams an early 7-0 lead. Upper St. Clair fought back thanks to a pair of fantastic leaping catches by Aidan Besselman, but Pine-Richland’s defense stood tall and came up with a big third-down sack to force a field goal by Bennett Henderson.

The Rams extended their lead to 13-3 just before the break on a 20-yard TD pass from Palmieri to Vasilios Balouris, who caught a short screen pass then made a defender miss with a nifty move to get free to the end zone.

Pine-Richland’s defense controlled the line of scrimmage throughout the first half, and the second half was more of the same. The Rams did a great job of milking the clock on offense with their powerful rushing attack, and the defense gave the Panthers zero room to operate. Hellman showed impressive arm talent but had very little time to pass, and Brown was rendered practically invisible.

“They were physical and really won the line of scrimmage,” said Upper St. Clair coach Mike Junko. “That’s a good football team. Credit goes to them. Not our day, for sure.”

Ethan Pillar punched in a 4-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter, giving Pine-Richland a virtually insurmountable 20-3 lead with the way the Rams’ defense was dominating. Palmieri added on a 1-yard TD later in the quarter, and Luke Rudolph put the finishing touches on Pine-Richland’s masterful performance with an 18-yard score to make it 34-3. Upper St. Clair finished the game with 120 total yards of offense on 44 plays.

“We knew coming into this year we had a great staff and we had a great team coming back,” Palmieri said. “The mentality all year was getting here and getting a state championship.”

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at