Imhotep Charter has a defensive end considered one of the nation’s top sophomores, a couple of defensive backs with major college offers, a defensive tackle who has committed to Pitt, and a sophomore running back who already has committed to the University of Georgia.
But it’s Pine-Richland that has the PIAA title.
Pine-Richland might not have been stocked with future Power Five conference talent like its opponent, but the Rams were the better team Friday when they defeated Philadelphia power Imhotep Charter, 28-14, in the PIAA Class 5A championship at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg, Pa.
The PIAA title is the third for Pine-Richland (13-3), all coming since 2016. The Rams also won crowns in 2016 and 2020 under former coach Eric Kasperowicz. First-year coach Jon LeDonne, the team’s third coach in as many seasons, won his second PIAA championship. He guided Penn Hills to the Class 5A title in 2018.
“I tell them all time, ‘I’ll always bet on us and what we do, our style of football,'” said LeDonne. “A lot of teams aren’t ready to play our style of football. We’re a physical team.”
It marked the second season in a row Imhotep Charter (10-3) lost to a WPIAL team in the championship. A season ago, it fell to Penn-Trafford, 17-14, in overtime. The Panthers dropped to 1-6 in championship appearances, their only win coming in 2015.
As usual, Ryan Palmieri played a gigantic role in the Pine-Richland win. Palmieri, who moved from running back to quarterback a few games into this season, rushed for 195 yards on 31 carries, completed 4 of 4 passes for 85 yards, and played a part in all four of his team’s touchdowns. Palmieri rushed for two scores, threw for one, and also returned an interception for a touchdown.
“It’s just what he does for our team and our program,” LeDonne said. “He definitely helped this program be what it’s been this year and he set an example for the younger kids, and that’s going to help for years to come.”
One of the big questions heading into the matchup was how Pine-Richland’s offense would fare against Imhotep Charter’s defense, which had given up only 88 points all season and had not surrendered more than 20 points in any game. The Rams gave an emphatic answer while rolling up 253 rushing yards and holding a large edge in time of possession. They finished 9 of 13 on third downs and 2 of 2 on fourth downs. The Rams ran 63 plays compared to Imhotep Charter’s 43.
Particularly important in that success was the play of an offensive line that didn’t back down from a Imhotep defensive front featuring end Zahir Mathis (rated one of the country’s top sophomores) and tackle Jahsear Whittington, a Pitt recruit. The Pine-Richland offensive line, which includes tackles Jake Beam and Brady Carrigan, guards Ryan Cory and Jon Smith, and center Isaiah Kerns, did a tremendous job opening up holes for Palmieri and running back Ethan Pillar, who added 64 yards on 17 carries.
Said LeDonne, “We lean a lot on the right side, but with Brady and Jon, they opened up holes all night long. We said, ‘Let’s set the tone.'”
Not only was Pine-Richland not intimidated by Imhotep Charter, but the Rams didn’t unravel after an unfortunate start. The Rams asserted themselves on the game’s opening possession, taking the ball 65 yards on 14 plays. But on fourth-and-goal from the 1, a snap sailed over Palmieri’s head. He tracked down the ball and tried to make something out of nothing but was tackled for an 11-yard loss. Imhotep Charter didn’t let the opportunity go to waste, as Mikal Davis found a streaking Corey Downing 52 yards for a touchdown to put the Panthers ahead, 7-0.
Pine-Richland responded by scoring 28 unanswered points, and it used a lengthy drive to get the run started. The Rams followed up Imhotep Charter’s touchdown by going on a 14-play, 76-yard drive that ate up 7 minutes, 10 seconds. Palmieri capped it with a 4-yard touchdown run. The Rams had to settle for a 7-7 halftime tie after Grant Argiro misfired on a 20-yard field goal with seven seconds left.
“At halftime, a lot of our guys were dejected because we took care of business outside of putting the ball in the end zone,” said LeDonne.
Imhotep Charter received the second-half kickoff, but Pine-Richland was the first to score just two plays into the quarter. That came when Palmieri intercepted Davis and weaved through the defense for a 40-yard touchdown.
“It was just a complete momentum-changer,” LeDonne recalled.
Imhotep Charter turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, and Pine-Richland went 79 yards on eight plays and increased its lead to 21-7 after Palmieri’s 1-yard touchdown plunge with 4:09 left in the third.
Then came the backbreaker when Palmieri hooked up with Luke Rudolph for a 30-yard touchdown to make it 28-7 with 10:36 remaining. Davis scored on a 1-yard run with 7:01 left to cut the Imhotep Charter deficit to 14, but the Rams salted the clock away by going on a 12-play, 64-yard drive that ended the game.
Davis finished 7 of 18 for 126 yards and two interceptions. (Pine-Richland’s Sam Heckert picked off the other.) He also ran for 51 yards on 13 carries. Jabree Wallace-Coleman, a sophomore running back and Georgia recruit, was limited to 14 yards on 7 carries.
Pine-Richland players don’t have anywhere near as many Power Five offers as Imhotep Charter’s laundry list of next-level talent, but the Rams once again played as a team and proved Friday to be the better team. And because of that, the team that began the season just 1-3 finished it as the best Class 5A team in Pennsylvania.
“We’re just excited to bring this back to the community,” LeDonne said. “The boys, especially the seniors, have been through a lot. They had to deal with COVID their sophomore years and then the coaching carousel. I just wanted to bring back some stability to the kids. I’m excited to bring this one back.”