When Jon LeDonne left his post at Penn Hills to become the third head coach at Pine-Richland in as many seasons, the move sent shockwaves around the WPIAL.

LeDonne was only four years removed from leading the Indians to WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A titles, and he had a promising group of players just coming into their own. But the chance to coach in his home district was simply too good to pass up — and one year later, it sure looks like LeDonne made the right move.

After stumbling to a 1-3 start in LeDonne’s first four games at the helm — albeit against top-notch competition — the Rams promptly reeled off a 12-game winning streak while battering opponents with their smash-mouth style of play, ending the season as WPIAL and PIAA champions and making LeDonne only the third coach in WPIAL history to accomplish the feat at two different schools.

Now, with the bar set as high as it can go, what do LeDonne and his players have in store for an encore?

“Guys are definitely excited to get in pads and start playing real football,” LeDonne said. “We did so much 7-on-7 stuff, and that’s just to appease parents and kids. But once you get the pads on, you start talking real football now.”

Gone is 2022 PUP high school football co-Player of the Year Ryan Palmieri, a multi-purpose magician who somehow managed to account for 2,265 yards from scrimmage and 31 total touchdowns while also playing lights-out defense at safety. He only raised his game as the stakes got higher, and priority No. 1 for Pine-Richland is finding a new quarterback to run the show.

LeDonne isn’t yet sure who it will be starting under center in Week 0, but he expects to use several different players at the position until he finds the right fit — just as he did last year, when he decided to switch Palmieri from running back to quarterback after the 1-3 start.

“There’s no way you can replace someone like that with one individual. You’re not going to have someone so special every year,” LeDonne said. “We’re going to do that with four or five different individuals, with a combination of QBs and Wildcat QBs and a bunch of things.”

One player the Rams know they can count on in the backfield is all-state running back Ethan Pillar, back for his senior season after rushing for 1,056 yards and 13 TDs last year. Pillar (5-11, 205) will likely see an increased share of the carries after Palmieri’s departure, and he should see an expanded role on defense at linebacker as well.

“He’s ready to carry the weight for us,” LeDonne said. “We’re looking to get him more involved defensively this year, but at the end of the day, he’s going to be our running threat. He’s looking to carry that weight and get more touches and be more explosive for us.”

Class previews

Other than Palmieri and Pillar, the driving force behind Pine-Richland’s championship run last season was its dominant offensive line. Although all-conference picks Jake Beam and Isaiah Kerns have graduated, Wisconsin recruit Ryan Cory (6-5, 295) is back to lead the way for the Rams up front alongside fellow senior John Smith (6-1, 280).

Another staple of Pine-Richland’s success last year was its stifling defense, and while there are several key holes to fill, LeDonne is confident this year’s group can play up to the standard set by last year’s unit.

Three starting defensive linemen graduated along with standout linebacker Max Heckert, as well as Palmieri and all-conference defensive back Andrew Mellis on the back end. But senior Evan Johnson and junior Sam Heckert started all 16 games at linebacker in 2022, and the Rams have a ton of depth in the secondary, with Tanner Cunningham and Vasile Balouris manning the safety positions and Eli Wentz and Bryce O’Brien starting at corner.

All in all, this has the makings of another vintage Pine-Richland team — strong up the middle, loaded with athletes and built on a powerful rushing attack and a fast, physical defense. Replacing Palmieri’s excellence at quarterback will be vital, but if the Rams can find somebody even half as great as Palmieri was last year, they should be a top contender to play well into November and maybe even December once again.

“There’s definitely a couple question marks. But when you build something, the foundation is there,” LeDonne said. “Same thing when we were at Penn Hills. You go in with those expectations every year. It’s a new crop of kids, but they’re used to having success all the way from the youth level on up. So expectations are high. We’re going to be very hard and demanding on them.

“We do have a couple questions to answer. But the cupboard is not bare, and we’ll be ready to go.”

Pine-Richland linemen drive into the sled during drills on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, in Pine. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Although Woodland Hills finished only 5-5 in the regular season a year ago, the Wolverines upset No. 3 seed Franklin Regional in the first round of the playoffs to reach the WPIAL semifinals before falling to eventual WPIAL and state champion Pine-Richland. New coach Brian Tarrant takes over to replace Tim Bostard after six seasons at the helm, and there’s a lot of buzz about this team being a possible championship contender. Sophomore Cam Walter passed for 1,011 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman, and fellow sophomore Scoop Smith led the team with 30 catches for 455 yards while scoring seven TDs in his dazzling debut season. All-conference senior lineman Mej’aun Rose (6-6, 297) is also back to bolster both the offensive and defensive lines.

North Hills snuck into the playoffs despite a 3-7 finish in the regular season last year, then the Indians gave top-seeded Bethel Park all it could handle in a 19-17 WPIAL quarterfinal defeat. Five out of six all-conference players graduated last year, but junior Julius Green returns after rushing for 340 yards with four touchdowns as a sophomore. Senior Jake Pollaro should be one of the team’s top receiving targets after catching 14 passes for 130 yards last season.

Even though Penn Hills barely missed out on a postseason berth last year, expectations are through the roof going into 2023 with senior quarterback Julian Dugger and senior running back Amir Key returning for one last ride. Dugger (6-4, 210) is a Pitt recruit with a rocket for a left arm and freakish athletic ability, and Key (5-8, 190) might be the single most electrifying player in the WPIAL with the ball in his hands. Dugger passed for 1,137 yards and 10 touchdowns while adding 476 yards and a pair of rushing scores last year, while Key rushed for 978 yards and led the team with 18 receptions for 222 yards and 14 total TDs. Senior linebacker Tajuan Bandy and senior defensive backs De’Andre Cochran and Cameron Thomas are also returning all-conference selections for the Indians.

The production of all-conference running back Luke Cignetti will be tough for Shaler ro replace, but the Titans do have one of the top signal callers in the area in senior Keegan Smetanka along with a solid core of pass catchers returning in 2023. Smetanka (6-0, 175) passed for 2,113 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago — both tops in Class 5A — while senior Joey DeSabato led all of Class 5A with 52 receptions and ranked third with 821 yards along with 11 TDs. Senior tight end Brandon London also earned all-conference honors as a junior after hauling in 31 passes for 442 yards and four scores.

Coming off a winless season in 2022, Fox Chapel will face an uphill climb to make it back into contention in Class 5A. Former assistant Dave Leasure is back on staff for the first time since 2010, this time as the new head coach taking over for Tom Loughran. Senior quarterback Ben DeMotte will try to lead the Foxes to a better finish after passing for 1,191 yards and six touchdowns last year.

Penn Hills’ Amir Key runs drills with his team during practice Friday, Aug. 11. 2023, at Fralic Athletic Center in Penn Hills. Key tallied 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 14 TDs in 2022. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Big East Conference

It hasn’t taken long for third-year coach Lance Getsy to re-establish the winning culture previously set at Franklin Regional by former coach Greg Botta, who resigned in 2021 after winning 177 games at the school. The Panthers claimed a conference title last season and earned a No. 3 seed for the WPIAL playoffs before a disappointing first-round exit against Woodland Hills, but expectations are higher than ever with senior receiver Ayden Hudock (6-2, 190) leading the way. The two-way standout caught 42 passes for 957 yards with 15 touchdowns and earned all-conference honors on both offense and defense in 2022. Senior lineman Andrew Devola (6-2, 255) and senior linebacker Owen Sinclair (6-1, 230) are also all-conference performers coming back to lead the defense.

After losing an exciting back-and-forth first-round playoff matchup against Upper St. Clair last year, the goal is a championship or bust for coach Don Holl and Gateway. Senior quarterback Brad Birch is one of the top passers in the state, having won a WPIAL Class 1A title as a freshman phenom at Jeannette but yet to taste the same glory since joining the Gators as a sophomore. A dangerous playmaker whether rushing or receiving, senior tailback Jaquon Reynolds returns after racking up 928 yards from scrimmage with nine touchdowns as a junior. Senior linebacker Remy Bose (6-1, 218) is an all-conference selection who will again serve as the centerpiece of Gateway’s punishing defense.

Penn-Trafford lost a lot of key players from last year’s playoff team, especially the big boys up front like center Joe Enick and guard Mike Paterra, both all-conference picks. But all hope is not lost for John Ruane’s bunch — not with big bad senior tackle Zach Tomosovich (6-5, 310) leading the way as a three-year starter up front. All-conference defensive back Carmen Metcalfe is also back for his senior year and should see an increase in targets as the team’s go-to receiver after catching 17 passes for 248 yards last season. Juniors Tasso Whipple and Parker Guy and sophomore Jamison Yurt should all see carries in the backfield for the Warriors. Whipple ran for 386 yards on 68 attempts in 2022.

After its groundbreaking 5-0 start last season, Hempfield sputtered to four losses in its final five games and just missed out on a playoff bid. Assistant-turned-head coach Nick Keefer will look to pick up where former coach Mike Brown left off, but he’ll be starting virtually from scratch after losing a handful of top players from last year’s team. Senior Keiran Lippmann will likely be counted on to steer the offense after filling in for the injured Jake Murphy at quarterback late in 2022. Keefer also said senior linebackers Brady Ewing and Brennan Knight are providing much-needed stability and leadership on defense.

Plum is coming off a .500 season and looking to work its way into the upper echelon of the Class 5A playoff picture, but that might be a tall task after losing standout running back Eryck Moore to graduation. Moore is gone after rushing for nearly 1,500 yards with 21 touchdowns last year, but junior receiver Darian Nelson is back after leading the team with 30 catches for 326 yards to go with 163 yards on the ground as a sophomore.

After coaching Hempfield to its best season in decades in 2022, Mike Brown decided to resign after just two years coaching the Spartans. Three days later, he took the vacant head coaching position at Norwin, which is coming off a last-place finish in the conference and 1-9 record overall. Senior Jackson Pons is an exciting athlete committed to Miami (Ohio), and he’s looking to help the Knights make a playoff push after earning all-conference accolades at wide receiver and defensive back last season.

Class Focus

Allegheny Six Conference

Bethel Park faces some uncertainty heading into year one under offensive coordinator-turned-head coach Phil Peckich, but the Black Hawks are riding a wave of momentum following an eye-opening season that saw them finish 10-2 overall and reach the WPIAL semifinals after earning the No. 1 seed for the WPIAL playoffs. Junior quarterback Tanner Pfeuffer (6-5, 180) is a talented gunslinger who threw for 1,507 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago, and junior Ryan Petras is a dynamic athlete who finished with 578 yards both rushing and receiving while scoring a team-high 17 TDs.

Upper St. Clair made it all the way to the WPIAL championship game for the first time under coach Mike Junko in 2022, finishing 10-3 overall and showing plenty of promise for the future with its young tandem of quarterbacks leading the way. Junko said junior Julian Dahlem and sophomore Ethan Hellman will once again split playing time after Dahlem completed 63 of 100 passes for 971 yards and 16 TDs with four interceptions last year, while Hellman completed 56 of 93 attempts for 920 yards and nine TDs while also throwing four picks.

After narrowly missing out on the playoffs despite a promising 6-1 start to the season, Peters Township‘s loaded junior class from 2022 has some unfinished business to attend to this fall. Senior Chris Cibrone is back after passing for 1,963 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago, but Indians coach T.J. Plack said there is a legitimate competition for the starting spot between Cibrone (5-10, 160) and sophomore Nolan DiLucia (6-2, 175), who impressed in limited action as a freshman. Both QBs could see time under center in 2023, and they should have no shortage of talented receivers to spread the ball around to, as senior wideouts Nate Miller, Carter Shanafelt and Ethan Wertman are all multi-year starters.

After winning a pair of state titles and posting the best winning percentage in the WPIAL from 2010-19, South Fayette has experienced some tougher times since moving up from Class 4A to 5A in 2020. Still, the Lions remain competitive year in and year out, and senior quarterback Nico Lamonde will look to carry on the program’s tradition of producing elite pocket passers after throwing for 838 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Senior Nate Deanes is also back after leading the team in both rushing (64 carries for 351 yards) and receiving (21 catches for 201 yards) while scoring 14 TDs and earning all-conference recognition at defensive back in 2022.

After going undefeated in the regular season and losing a heartbreaker in the WPIAL title game against Penn-Trafford in 2021, Moon fell to 1-9 overall in 2022 after graduating a plethora of key seniors. The Tigers bring back senior Josh Bladel, younger brother of former Swiss Army knife Ben Bladel, a star player on that 2021 team.

Coming off a last-place finish in the conference, Baldwin is looking to turn things around under new coach Dana Brown, a former assistant at McKeesport. Senior tailback Andrew Sharp returns after rushing for 794 yards and nine TDs as one of the team’s few bright spots last year.

Pine-Richland running back Ethan Pillar takes a breather during drills Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, in Pine. Pillar rushed for 1,056 yards and 13 TDs as a junior while helping the Rams win WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A titles. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Players to watch

Brad Birch, Gateway, 6-2, 190, QB, Sr. — Prolific passer has thrown for 6,317 yards and 74 touchdowns in his career, including 2,018 yards and 19 TDs last season.

Julian Dugger, Penn Hills, 6-4, 210, QB, Sr. — A dynamic athlete with a polished pocket presence, the Pitt recruit has passed for 3,338 yards and 35 touchdowns while rushing for 1,163 yards and 14 TDs in his career.

Ayden Hudock, Franklin Regional, 6-2, 190, WR-DB, Sr. — The Panthers’ two-way standout led all of Class 5A with 957 receiving yards and ranked third with 42 catches while earning all-conference honors on both sides of the ball in 2022.

Amir Key, Penn Hills, 5-8, 190, RB-LB, Sr. — An electric playmaker who led the Indians in both rushing and receiving last season, tallying 1,200 total yards and 14 touchdowns.

Ethan Pillar, Pine-Richland, 5-11, 205, RB-LB, Sr. — Hard-nosed tailback helped propel Rams to WPIAL and PIAA championships in 2022 while rushing for 1,056 yards and 13 touchdowns.

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

Steve Rotstein

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