When coach Jon LeDonne was hired as the new coach at Pine-Richland on Feb. 7, he brought a stellar staff with him.
Not only does he have several coaches with Division I coaching experience, but he even added coaches with NFL experience.
“This team would be where they are now even without me,” former Steelers linebacker Vince Williams said after the Rams’ 34-3 win against Upper St. Clair in the WPIAL Class 5A championship. “They have a great staff here, and those guys know what they are doing. I just try to give input wherever I can.”
Mike McMahon, who is the quarterbacks coach for the team, spent five years in the NFL, playing for the Detroit Lions, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings. He also spent one season as an assistant at Fox Chapel. When LeDonne called him, it was the right timing.
“I’ve missed football, and I had coached a little bit in the past,” McMahon said. “When he called me, I was like ‘Sure, whenever you need me.’ I just love being around the kids and passing knowledge onto them. Anything I have learned throughout my career, it is great to see them take that and put it into their game.”
Williams has 9-year-old twin boys, Caiden and Cam, who play with LeDonne’s son, Marco.
“When he saw I retired and he saw what I was doing with the youth program, he asked me to come and volunteer, and I said sure,” Williams said. “But man, this coaching staff is awesome, they have been awesome. Long before Vince Williams.”
Still, having the NFL experience earns the attention of the players.
“Every time they speak, everyone listens,” junior running back Ethan Pillar said, “because we know they were at the highest level. They know what they are talking about, so everyone shuts up when they talk.”
Star linebacker Joey Perry, a senior who had nine total tackles and three sacks, gave credit to the coaches he works closest with.
“They think of things we wouldn’t normally think of,” Perry said. “Coach [John] Curran and coach [Tommy] Camino, the defensive line coaches, they are phenomenal individuals. They are like father figures to me. I love them.”
When the Rams lost three of the first four, it was the coaching staff that kept the team together. Now the Rams have lifted the trophy and look ahead to next week when they will face Erie Cathedral Prep in a rematch of the PIAA title game two seasons ago, which the Rams ran away with, 48-7.
“We are looking forward to that rematch,” Pillar said. “We will be looking to whack them again.”
All three phases stand out
Not only did Perry create chaos for the Upper St. Clair offense by flying into the backfield and racking up sacks and pressures, but he impacted the game on special teams as well. The team’s primary punter, Perry launched three balls for 104 yards, helping the team flip field position.
That is nothing new for Pine-Richland. LeDonne and his staff put a heavy emphasis on special teams.
“We have been solid all season, because the coaches preach the importance of special teams,” sophomore kicker Grant Argiro said. “We are really close as a unit. The team as a whole is really close.”
After Upper St. Clair punted on its first possession, Pine-Richland got the ball and started chugging down the field. The Rams ran into a fourth-down situation at their 43 and brought the punt team out. While Perry was standing deep waiting for the snap, Pillar lined up as the personal protector behind the line of scrimmage. The snap went to Pillar on a fake, and the Rams got a first down. Five plays later, senior quarterback Ryan Palmieri scampered into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown run. The Rams never gave up the lead after that.
“It was pretty crucial,” Pillar said. “I’m glad we got it because it set the tone. It was a little bit of a slow start, but once we got that we just kept rolling.”
“We focus on special teams a lot,” LeDonne added. “We dedicate 25-30 minutes a day to special teams. Probably a lot more than a lot of teams, but it’s a third of the game. If you set yourself up for success on special teams, that helps you out on the other side of the ball, too.”
Argiro has a strong leg. He has made a 55-yard field goal in practice. So, the staff trusted him to attempt a 51-yard field goal just before the half.
“It was into the wind,” Argiro said. “I thought I had a chance at it. It did get us better field position because it was a touchback.”
NA’s Khiryn Boyd balls
Junior Khiryn Boyd has been North Allegheny’s No. 1 receiver throughout the year. He had 38 receptions for 581 yards coming into Saturday’s WPIAL Class 6A title game. He continued his dominant run with two catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns to help power the Tigers to a 35-21 victory against Central Catholic.
“Before the play was even called, I told my coach the play was going to be open,” Boyd said of the first touchdown. “It worked.”
His first score went for 51 yards and put North Allegheny up, 13-0.
“He is a big time player,” Tigers coach Art Walker said. “He may not be as big or as tall as other players, but he has ball skills and he is a Division I football player. What he did against a great receiver like [Central Catholic’s Peter] Gonzalez, who is bigger than him and what he did against a great secondary and his return ability, I don’t know how you could go wrong with scholarshipping a player like him.”
His second score went for 68 yards, and again put the Tigers up, 21-14.
Boyd could be seen putting his arms out to the side after his game-high three pass breakups, almost like wings.
“That is the no-fly zone,” Boyd said. “Shoutout to my cousin [North Allegheny graduate] Joey Porter Jr. He started it. That’s who I got it from.”
He accepted the challenge of guarding Gonzalez, one of Central’s best receivers, throughout the game.
“It takes a lot of work,” Boyd said. “I love that coach has the trust in me to follow Peter Gonzalez.
“I watch a lot of film. Film is the key.”
Vikings sail off
Coming up on the losing end of a title game brings pain for everyone on the team. Senior leaders were emotional addressing Central Catholic after the loss.
“I think we persevered a lot throughout the last few games of the season,” junior quarterback Payton Wehner said. “Obviously NA gave us a good one, they are tough. We thought we had them this game, but they just came out tougher than us, smarter than us and they played better than we did.”
Wehner isn’t the only junior on the team. Receivers Gonzalez and Vernon Settles are both in the class of 2024. Leading rushers Amari Shields and Elijah Faulkner are both sophomores. So, while the loss stings, the future remains bright for the Vikings.
“I’m super excited [for our senior year],” Wehner said. “Four years have flown by. I am going to make sure we work hard during the offseason.”
“[Next season] should be good,” Vikings coach Terry Totten said. “But, they have to go out and put the work in and do it. … [This game is] a learning experience. This one is a stinger.”
Saul works in sports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.