With the PIAA championships in the rearview mirror, it’s time to put a wrap on the high school football season. And what better way to do that than by handing out some awards?
Introducing the first PUP Awards, which highlight the best of the best in the WPIAL and City League. Not only were these players great, but most also played on outstanding teams. Of the 26 players selected, 11 won WPIAL titles and three claimed PIAA titles.
While other local all-star teams are fabulous and terrific in their own ways, what makes the PUP Awards unique is that they are position-based. The team was built like an actual team, representing the area’s best players at every level on offense, defense and special teams.
All players in the WPIAL and City League were considered, and the team was picked by the Pittsburgh Union Progress sports staff along with help from high school coaches. While there is no physical award, the bragging rights that go along with making the team will last a lifetime.
Quarterback — Ryan Palmieri • Pine-Richland • 5-11 • 180 • Senior
Palmieri began the season as a running back. He ended it as the quarterback of the PIAA Class 5A champions. Palmieri made the position switch early in the season, and it paid off. Of course, Palmieri still ran the ball a lot. He set school single-season records with 1,992 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns while also throwing for 1,064 yards and 10 scores. He ran for 184 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in the PIAA championship win against Imhotep Charter.
Running back — Tiqwai Hayes • Aliquippa • 5-11 • 203 • Sophomore
The only sophomore to make it onto this year’s team, “Tikey” picked up right where he left off after his breakout freshman season, rushing for 1,981 yards with 33 touchdowns for the back-to-back WPIAL Class 4A champs. Hayes rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns in a WPIAL championship win vs. Central Valley, then had a 54-yard interception return for a touchdown in the state title game vs. Bishop McDevitt. Now up to 3,727 yards rushing with 56 total touchdowns in his career.
Running back — Landan Stevenson • Mapletown • 5-11 • 180 • Senior
Not only did Stevenson lead the WPIAL in rushing, he also helped Mapletown go unbeaten in the regular season and win a playoff game for the first time in school history. Stevenson ran for 2,342 yards on 224 carries (10.5 yards a carry) and also paced the WPIAL with 45 touchdowns and 317 total points. Stevenson closed his career with 5,993 yards rushing, which ranks ninth in WPIAL history. His 102 touchdowns are fifth-most all time.
Wide receiver — Aidan Besselman • Upper St. Clair • 6-3 • 190 • Senior
Known as one of the most clutch playmakers in the WPIAL, Besselman caught 41 passes for 817 yards, both good for fourth best in Class 5A. Deep-ball specialist scored 10 touchdowns, none bigger than a go-ahead 26-yard touchdown reception on fourth down with 2:22 remaining in a WPIAL quarterfinal win vs. Gateway. Also ran for a 27-yard touchdown in a WPIAL semifinal win vs. Bethel Park to help the Panthers reach their first WPIAL title game in 11 years.
Wide receiver — Khiryn Boyd • North Allegheny • 5-10 • 170 • Junior
After earning all-conference honors as a sophomore, Boyd posted a breakout junior season in which he made a giant impact on offense, defense and special teams while leading the Tigers to the WPIAL Class 6A title. Boyd hauled in 43 catches for 751 yards and 12 touchdowns, all team bests. He also rushed for close to 300 yards and had two long touchdown receptions against Central Catholic in the WPIAL final. Boyd also collected a team-high seven interceptions.
Tight end — Peyton Faulkner • Avonworth • 6-4 • 230 • Senior
Kent State recruit helped the Antelopes reach the WPIAL finals for the second time in four years while catching 26 passes for 401 yards, leading the team in both categories for the third year in a row. Also rushed for 105 yards on 13 carries and scored seven total touchdowns, making a major impact as a versatile offensive weapon despite doing much of his best work as a punishing blocker.
Offensive line — Mark Banbury • Upper St. Clair • 6-2 • 275 • Senior
A mainstay on the Upper St. Clair lines since his freshman season, Banbury was a rare four-year starter playing in one of the WPIAL’s largest classes. A team captain, Banbury helped pave the way for a rushing attack led by running back Jamaal Brown, one which fueled the Panthers to a berth in the WPIAL Class 5A final. Banbury is a two-time all-conference choice and also a standout nose guard who finished with 46 tackles, 5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.
Offensive line — Kade Capristo • Mt. Lebanon • 6-3 • 300 • Senior
A force up front for the past two seasons, Capristo helped pave the way for the Blue Devils’ running game while serving as one of the WPIAL’s most trusted blind-side protectors. A Richmond recruit, Capristo played a big role in Mt. Lebanon’s undefeated 2021 season that included WPIAL and PIAA Class 6A titles while earning all-state honors as a junior.
Offensive line — Ryan Cory • Pine-Richland • 6-4 • 290 • Junior
Considered one of the top junior linemen in the state, Cory was a force at right guard for the WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A champs. Cory regularly created running room for quarterback Ryan Palmieri and running back Ethan Pillar, and he put forth an outstanding performance against a loaded Imhotep Charter defensive front in the PIAA final. Cory made an impact along the defensive line, as well. Cory’s offers include Pitt, West Virginia, Oregon and Cincinnati.
Offensive line — Joe Enick • Penn-Trafford • 6-3 • 295 • Senior
A rugged run blocker with an unmistakable mean streak to his game, the “Mullet Mauler” had another strong season for the Warriors after helping them win their first-ever WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A titles in 2021. The Central Michigan recruit received the Bill Fralic Memorial Award as the top senior interior lineman in the WPIAL.
Offensive line — Greg Smith • Steel Valley • 6-5 • 315 • Senior
Smith is a big dude who had an equally big season as the top lineman for the WPIAL Class 2A champions. Nicknamed “Big June,” Smith was pretty good in the fall months, too. Steel Valley coach Ray Braszo said “he’s definitely the biggest and most talented kid I’ve probably ever had.” A two-time all-conference choice, Smith was a finalist for the Bill Fralic Memorial Award. Smith will play in college at Miami (Ohio).
All-purpose — Rodney Gallagher • Laurel Highlands • 6-0 • 175 • Senior
The definition of a do-it-all threat, Gallagher dazzled Mustangs fans with his big-play ability as a passer, runner and receiver while leading Laurel Highlands to an 8-3 finish and the first playoff win in school history. The West Virginia recruit completed 93 of 167 attempts for 1,262 yards, rushed for 690 yards and caught 13 passes for 77 yards while scoring 29 total touchdowns. Finished career with 3,014 yards passing, 2,359 yards rushing and 890 yards receiving.
Defensive line — Naquan Crowder • Aliquippa • 6-4 • 341 • Senior
Crowder, a nose guard, was a member of a group of three massive Aliquippa linemen nicknamed the “Trench Dawgs.” Crowder definitely showed that he has a lot of dog in him, helping the WPIAL Class 4A champions and PIAA runner-up limit foes to 19 rushing yards per game prior to the PIAA final. Crowder finished with 6 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries and an interception. He also scored two touchdowns, one being a memorable 88-yard scoop and score against McKeesport in the WPIAL semifinals.
Defensive line — Jason McBride • Aliquippa • 6-3 • 300 • Senior
One of the leaders of the notorious “Trench Dawgs,” McBride had a dominant senior season on both sides of the line for the back-to-back WPIAL champions. Recorded 61 total tackles, including 40 solo stops, to help the Quips reach the PIAA Class 4A finals for the second year in a row. Also tallied five sacks and five TFLs and had a 14-yard interception return for a touchdown in a WPIAL semifinal win vs. McKeesport.
Defensive line — Donte Taylor • Westinghouse • 5-11 • 295 • Senior
Much like Crowder and McBride, Taylor was a dawg, a “Midnight Dawg.” That’s a nickname Westinghouse bestowed onto itself for practicing in the dark without any lights. Taylor was lights out for the City League champions, who reached the PIAA Class 2A final for the first time. This former Garfield Gators standout was a headliner on a defense that allowed only 10.1 points per game, including 57 in seven playoff games before the PIAA title loss to Southern Columbia.
Edge rusher — Jordan Mayer • Thomas Jefferson • 6-5 • 235 • Senior
One of the most feared pass rushers in the area, Mayer recorded five sacks and 41 tackles in 2022 despite constantly drawing extra attention from opposing linemen. The Wisconsin recruit is also a versatile tight end who caught 20 passes for 252 yards while serving as a reliable blocker in the Jaguars’ run game.
Edge rusher — Cole Sullivan • Central Catholic • 6-4 • 200 • Junior
Cole was one cool customer while blossoming into one of the area’s top juniors. Sullivan showed that he was equally efficient rushing the passer and defending the run for a Vikings team that advanced to the WPIAL Class 6A championship for the fourth year in a row and the ninth time in the past 10 seasons. Sullivan was also a threat on the offensive side of the ball, as he finished the season with 15 catches for 287 yards. He has an offer from Boston College.
Linebacker — Bret FitzSimmons • Central Valley • 5-11 • 185 • Senior
An impactful two-way player who finished his high school career with a record of 51-4, FitzSimmons played in four WPIAL championship games and three PIAA championship games while winning three WPIAL titles and two state titles. Racked up 71 total tackles and 6 TFLs with 8 pass breakups in 2022. Also had a breakout season at tailback, rushing for 1,723 yards and scoring 30 total touchdowns.
Linebacker — Cameron Lindsey • Aliquippa • 6-2 • 210 • Junior
Lindsey was a standout on a nasty Aliquippa defense that limited opponents to 11.6 points a game, just 1 yard per rush prior to the PIAA Class 4A final, and gave up 20 or more points only three times. That helped the Quips reach the WPIAL championship for the 15th consecutive year. Lindsey was second on the team in tackles and collected a team-high nine in the PIAA final. He has offers from Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia.
Defensive back — Bobbie Boyd • McKeesport • 5-8 • 175 • Senior
An elite ballhawk and thunderous tackler in the secondary, Boyd intercepted seven passes for the Tigers in 2022 — including three in a 19-7 win vs. Penn-Trafford on Sept. 2. He also rushed for 1,164 yards and scored 15 touchdowns despite missing nearly two full games with an ankle injury, finishing his high school career with back-to-back seasons of 1,000-plus yards rushing and 15 touchdowns.
Defensive back — Cruce Brookins • Steel Valley • 6-2 • 180 • Senior
Cruce’s play was crucial to Steel Valley’s success this season. Brookins might have been best known for what he did as a quarterback (1,661 yards rushing, 36 touchdowns), but he was also a difference maker on defense. He ranked among the team’s top tacklers and registered a team-best seven interceptions, one coming in the WPIAL Class 2A championship win against Beaver Falls. Brookins initially committed to Kent State but has since opened his recruitment.
Defensive back — Quinton Martin • Belle Vernon • 6-3 • 205 • Junior
One of the area’s most coveted recruits in recent memory, Martin delivered on all the hype and then some in 2022. Authored a legendary performance in the Leopards’ WPIAL championship win against Avonworth, scoring a trio of electrifying touchdowns via run, reception and punt return. Rushed for 1,208 yards while catching 26 passes for 403 yards with 30 total touchdowns. Also intercepted four passes, including one in a 9-8 win vs. Neumann-Goretti in the PIAA Class 3A championship game.
Defensive back — D.J. Walker • Aliquippa • 6-1 • 183 • Senior
Yet another member of Aliquippa’s talent-heavy defense, Walker was more of a runner than a walker as a key cog in a secondary that included Tiqwai Hayes, Brandon Banks and Nate Lindsey-Gill. A free safety who was excellent in pass coverage, Walker led the Quips with 7 interceptions and also found himself among the top tacklers. As a wide receiver, Walker led the team in receptions and receiving yards. Walker has more than a dozen Division I offers.
All-purpose — Braylan Lovelace • Leechburg • 6-3 • 200 • Senior
A versatile playmaker no matter where he lines up on the field, Lovelace helped the Blue Devils to back-to-back postseason appearances after leading them to the first playoff win in school history as a junior. The Pitt recruit rushed for 1,369 yards and 29 touchdowns, including a 279-yard effort vs. Riverview on Oct. 14. Ran for a combined 2,875 yards and scored 59 total touchdowns over his last two seasons, finishing with 4,170 yards rushing for his career.
Kicker — Bennett Henderson • Upper St. Clair • 5-10 • 165 • Junior
No one in the WPIAL converted more field goals than Henderson, who was successful on 10 attempts and was 45 of 46 on extra-point tries for the WPIAL Class 5A runner-up. Henderson knocked through field goals in eight of Upper St. Clair’s 13 games, posting a career-best three in a WPIAL quarterfinal win against Gateway. Henderson tied for the WPIAL lead with 11 field goals as a sophomore, giving him 21 in just two seasons.
Punter — Joey Castle • Norwin • 6-3 • 195 • Senior
An Akron recruit, Castle punted 39 times for an average of 32.6 yards and a long of 56, with seven punts getting downed inside the 20. Also converted 6 of 8 extra-point attempts for the Knights.