Julian Dugger has been waiting some time for this moment.
The standout Penn Hills quarterback — who recently committed to Pitt — said he and his 19 fellow seniors on the Indians roster began imagining what this fall might be like even before going undefeated as middle school players nearly four years ago.
“Everybody playing for their neighborhood teams also, everybody was the best on their neighborhood teams, so we were all just like, ‘When we go to high school, we are going to win the state championship,’” Dugger said. “This is that year. We are seniors now.”
That sense of urgency feels only more immediate after Penn Hills missed the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs a season ago.
Indians senior running back Amir Key said he and his teammates are focused on earning their place alongside Penn Hills teams that won WPIAL and PIAA championships in 1995 and 2018.
And then some.
“We want to be the best team to ever play on this field,” said Key, following a recent preseason practice at Yuhas-McGinley Stadium. “We want that the most. I would say we are a really hungry team this year. We’re really coming for it.”
Of Penn Hills’ 19 seniors, 14 are currently slated to be starters, Indians coach Charles Morris said.
“It’s a very experienced group,” he said. “I’m excited about them. I’m leaning on their experience going into the season.
“They’re excited for the moment,” Morris added. “They know that this is going to be their last time lacing it up on this field. They just want to make sure they do everything they can to go out on a positive note.”
And that begins with Dugger and Key.
A 6-foot-3, 200-pound left-handed quarterback, Dugger completed 73 of 130 passes for 1,137 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions, with 67 carries for 476 yards and two additional scores on the ground as a junior in 2022.
Dugger — who verbally committed to Pitt last month over offers from Toledo, UMass, Fordham, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart — threw for 1,306 yards with 20 touchdowns while rushing for 651 yards and 11 additional scores as a sophomore in 2021.
“Our whole offense is going to be dangerous this year,” Dugger said. “I wouldn’t really say we have a weakness. We can do everything — throw, run, anything — we can do it all.”
So, too, can Penn Hills’ quarterback, Morris said.
Now in his second season as head coach of his alma mater, Morris said Dugger had an “amazing offseason.”
Morris said now that his commitment to the Panthers is behind him, Dugger should be even more dangerous as a senior.
“Now he can just focus on football,” Morris said. “Recruiting is always, for a young kid, you don’t know what to expect. You go through the whole cycle, you’re hearing a lot of people talk, so you’re trying to figure out who’s telling you the right information.
“I think once you get that thing you dreamed about as a kid, it kind of relieves some pressure,” he added. “You’re able to focus on football, your teammates and having fun.”
Morris said Dugger has worked on his footwork over the offseason in addition to improving his mechanics as a thrower. He added that the experience his quarterback has in leading Penn Hills to the WPIAL semifinals two seasons ago should come in handy moving forward.
“He can make every throw,” Morris said. “He’s very athletic as people already know and just being able to take that experience to help our team.”
Dugger said he has plenty of weapons with which to work in the passing game. He said Cameron Thomas, D’Andre Cochran, Marcus Dorsey, Santana Levy-Jordan and Martel Palmer will all see passes from him this season.
Cochran caught nine passes for 246 yards last season, while Levy-Jordan had 10 catches for 94 yards.
“We’ve got a lot of guys out there, a lot of stud guys,” Dugger said. “They’re all putting in work. They’re all going to be touching the ball.”
Maybe no player will do so more than Key.
A 5-foot-8, 195-pound running back, Key carried the ball 150 times for 978 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2022. As a sophomore, he rushed for 842 yards and 4 touchdowns on 139 carries.
“I try to make it simple for myself and not make it hard all the time,” Key said. “I really just look for tendencies like, for instance, people getting tired or hands on their knees, or bending over a lot during the fourth quarter. That’s the type of stuff I look for.
“I want to have my foot on the pedal at all times. I just want to win — that’s my favorite thing to do at all times.”
Key also attacks defenses in the passing game. He had a team-high 18 receptions for 222 yards in 2002.
“He’s stronger than what people think,” Morris said. “He knows how to run behind his pads, and he’s just a great runner of the football. He’s probably one of the best running backs I’ve coached. His body type is fit for being a great running back.”
Morris said Key will only touch the ball more as a senior. He said his tailback could show up as a kick returner as well this season.
“We’re trying to find every opportunity to try and put the ball in his hands,” Morris said. “You’ll see him more in different positions than you didn’t see last year.”
Morris said the leadership exemplified by Dugger and Key will be critical to his team’s success this season.
“We are in way better shape than we were last year,” Morris said. “God forbid, we are pretty healthy going into this time. We’ve got better numbers than we had last year. They’re excited for the season. Of course, things didn’t go the way we had liked last year. I think they’re just excited for another opportunity.”