What do you think of when you think of the player of the year in the WPIAL/City League?
Is it the player with the best numbers, or do you give it to the best player on the best team? Is it somebody who lit up the scoreboard and rewrote the record books on offense, or does it go to a player who excelled on offense, defense and special teams? And if it has to go to somebody who played for and won a WPIAL and/or state championship, does it go to the player who had the most iconic championship performance?
If your answer to these questions is, “All of the above,” you should have no issues with our choices.
The Pittsburgh Union Progress sports staff recently compiled our high school football all-star team for the 2022 season, and with that, there were plenty of tough choices to make. Narrowing it down to two co-Players of the Year seemed like a no-brainer, though, with Belle Vernon’s Quinton Martin and Pine-Richland’s Ryan Palmieri standing head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.
On paper, Martin and Palmieri couldn’t be less alike. Martin is a 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior who is considered one of the top prospects to come out of Western Pa. in the past 20 years. A bona fide phenom from the moment he arrived on the scene his freshman year, the five-star recruit holds scholarship offers from Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas and many other Power Five schools.
Palmieri, on the other hand, is a senior generously listed at 5 feet 10 and 175 pounds. He only played sparingly on special teams as a sophomore before entering the running back rotation as a junior, when he rushed for 478 yards and scored five touchdowns. He started out his senior season at running back, but first-year Rams coach Jon LeDonne moved him to quarterback four weeks into the season following a disappointing 1-3 start.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Now Pine-Richland’s single-season record holder in rushing yards (1,929) and rushing touchdowns (26), Palmieri also passed for 1,104 yards and 10 TDs with only four interceptions. He was equally impressive on defense, racking up 133 total tackles with 5 TFLs, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 11 pass breakups and a 40-yard pick-six in the state championship game.
“I had played quarterback before and some of my friends were like, ‘Are you going to play QB this year?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I’ll do whatever they want,’ ” Palmieri said. “I wasn’t playing it at the start of the year, but I always knew if anything serious went down, I might step into that role. I wanted to win games, so I was good with whatever.”
And as for the added bonus of getting the ball in his hands on every snap?
“Yeah, I don’t hate that part of it,” he said, laughing.
Palmieri saved his best for last, first by completing 9 of 10 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 73 yards and a TD in a 34-12 PIAA Class 5A semifinal win vs. Cocalico. He then rushed for 184 yards and a pair of TDs while also throwing a touchdown pass and scoring on the aforementioned pick-six in the Rams’ 28-14 upset win vs. Philly powerhouse Imhotep Charter in the PIAA Class 5A title game.
“For Ryan to do that against those guys, he showed he was capable of playing on the grandest of stages,” LeDonne said.
Not many quarterbacks can shoulder such an immense workload while absorbing and delivering as much punishment as Palmieri did, but he never showed any signs of slowing down. In fact, he only got stronger as games wore on, often doing most of his damage in the second half.
“I like being out there the whole game,” Palmieri said. “I honestly feel like it helped me play better, because if I made a mistake on offense, I was like, ‘I can go make up for it on defense.’ I feel like it made me play without thinking, because I never had time to think. I was always doing something.”
Palmieri’s state championship performance was a fitting exclamation mark on his spectacular season. He outplayed everyone on Imhotep’s star-studded lineup, despite being smaller and far less heavily recruited than almost everyone lined up across from him.
As hard as it may be to believe, Palmieri is still waiting to receive his first scholarship offer to play college football. From the sound of it, though, his clutch postseason play for Pine-Richland has generated some newfound interest from college coaches. The way LeDonne sees it, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes calling with his first offer.
“Schools are realizing that he’s just an athlete and recruiting him as an athlete if they get the opportunity to get him,” LeDonne said.
Then there’s Martin, who already had the option to play college football virtually anywhere in the country before this season even started and did nothing to change that with his other-worldly efforts for WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A champion Belle Vernon.
Last year, Martin and quarterback Devin Whitlock helped the Leopards reach the WPIAL title game with an undefeated record before falling to Aliquippa in the Class 4A finals at Acrisure Stadium, 28-13. With Whitlock having graduated last spring, it was up to Martin to take over as the team’s unquestioned leader and finish the job this season.
Boy, did he ever.
Although he carried the ball only 126 times all season — an average of only nine carries per game — Martin stuffed up the stat sheet with 1,208 yards rushing while also doubling as the team’s leading receiver, catching 26 passes for 403 yards. He finished with 30 total touchdowns and picked off four passes on defense, none bigger than his over-the-shoulder interception while tip-toeing the sideline in Belle Vernon’s 9-8 PIAA Class 3A championship win vs. Neumann-Goretti.
“On defense, you just don’t have to worry about his sector. Nine out of 10 teams are going to throw away from him. You can match him up against their best kid all day,” Leopards coach Matt Humbert said. “Versatility is that kid’s key.”
Martin also scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in the dramatic state championship win, but his career-defining performance came in Belle Vernon’s 24-7 win against Avonworth in the WPIAL championship game. On that chilly Friday evening at Acrisure Stadium, Martin took matters into his own hands after the Leopards fell into a 7-0 hole. First, he caught a 32-yard touchdown pass to tie the game, then scored on an incredible 51-yard punt return TD just before halftime that will appear on highlight reels for years to come. A 45-yard TD run for good measure helped ice the game in the fourth quarter to bring Belle Vernon its first WPIAL title in 27 years.
“I think Quinton is such a good story, because all those statistics — when it comes to him, he doesn’t care about that,” Humbert said. “He’s not losing sleep over how many catches he gets. That’s the marketability about him. That’s why colleges love him. He’s a dude. He wants to win.”
Let the shared brilliance of Martin and Palmieri remind you that greatness comes in all shapes and sizes. And although you can measure height, weight and 40-yard dash times all you want, you can’t measure heart.
“After the state championship game, [Palmieri] was there on the sidelines helping us clean the field,” LeDonne said. “What Ryan has done for our team all year on both sides of the ball and for the program in general off the field, he’s a special individual.
“That’s who he is, and that’s who someone is going to get.”