Anthony Speca had to think long and hard when asked what the greatest strength of his Central Catholic team is this season.
“I think in recent years maybe our defense, but to be honest, this team is just loaded everywhere,” said Speca, a senior linebacker and Penn State recruit.
Speca isn’t kidding. Not only do the Vikings feature four Power Five-bound seniors, but they also return a three-year starter at quarterback, their leading receiver from last season, and a crew of talented underclassmen with bright futures. Combine all of that together, and this has the makings of a special first season for new coach Ryan Lehmeier.
First, about the new coach. Lehmeier was one of the hottest assistants in the WPIAL in recent seasons. He has won three WPIAL and two PIAA titles, all at Pine-Richland when he was offensive coordinator under fellow North Hills graduate Eric Kasperowicz. Lehmeier spent the previous two seasons in that same role at Seneca Valley. He now takes over a Central Catholic team that last season played for a WPIAL title for the ninth time in 10 seasons.
“It means the world,” Lehmeier said. “It’s an awesome opportunity. If you’ve been around WPIAL football, then I think the tradition here speaks for itself. I’m thrilled. I’m humbled to my core. It’s exciting to show up and go to work every day.”
Lehmeier took over for Terry Totten, who captured six WPIAL titles and a pair of PIAA titles in his 18 seasons. Totten has been a regular at Central Catholic practices during camp, with Lehmeier leaning on him as he transitions to the new position.
“Who better for me in the situation that I’m in to lean on than someone who was in the exact same seat for 18 years?” Lehmeier questioned.
Lehmeier has put together an excellent staff that is headed by offensive coordinator Ryan Reitz and defensive coordinator Jay Bell. Reitz was the offensive coordinator for Jeannette’s WPIAL and PIAA finalist team in 2020 and spent last season at Hempfield. Bell was the defensive coordinator at North Catholic when the Trojans reached the WPIAL final in 2021. Lehmeier also has three assistants who played in the NFL — Jason Pinkston, Manasseh Garner and Derek Moye.
“I think everybody has really enjoyed the new staff as a whole,” said senior tight end-linebacker Cole Sullivan. “It’s just kind of been a smooth process. I think the new staff has done a really good job of getting the team’s attention, and everyone is just buying into it.”
Sullivan (Michigan) is one of the team’s four seniors headed to play at Power Five schools. Like Speca, wide receiver Peter Gonzalez will play at Penn State, while defensive lineman Ty Yuhas will move just down the street to Pitt.
With Lehmeier and Reitz in charge, look for Central Catholic to open things up offensively. Considering the personnel, that’s likely a great idea. Senior Payton Wehner is a three-year starter at quarterback who passed for 2,504 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. He has an offer from Saint Francis.
“I think he finished his hoop season on a Saturday and was with us on Monday. That’s the type of kid he is. He’s really a vacuum for information. We’re pleased with where he’s at,” Lehmeier said.
Wehner’s top two receivers return in seniors Vernon Settles (54 catches, 660 yards) and Gonzalez (42 catches, 735 yards), as do leading rushers Elijah Faulkner (521 yards) and Amari Shields (498 yards), both juniors. Gonzalez earned all-conference honors last season.
“Maybe on the offensive side of the ball, just trying to spread out the offense a little bit more,” Sullivan said when asked what the biggest difference will be compared to last season. “Really just playing to our strengths as best we can.”
Of course, the defense, which has been the program’s calling card for many years, should be outstanding once again, as well. Sullivan, Yuhas and Settles (at defensive back) all gained all-conference recognition last fall, as did junior cornerback Xxavier Thomas, the younger brother of Indianapolis Colts safety Rodney Thomas. Junior wide receiver-linebacker Bradley Gompers is expected to make a big impact, too. Gompers has Power Five offers, as do sophomore linebacker Colsen Gatten and freshman wide receiver-defensive back Larry Moon.
Lehmeier, a teacher at South Hills Middle School, has done a lot of teaching since he got the Central Catholic job, but having such an experienced and talented group of seniors has helped move the process along. That group hopes to lead the Vikings to a WPIAL title — and maybe even more — after the team fell to North Allegheny in last year’s championship.
“I’m very fortunate to walk into a situation where the leadership at the top with the players is so strong,” said Lehmeier. “And I think these kids, they’ve been through a lot. They’ve seen ups and downs. As freshmen they won the championship. The last two years they haven’t. It’s a great group. We talk a lot about how great programs are led by the players. And great teams are led by the players. We try to give them a ton of ownership, and they’ve taken the reins of some of the stuff we’ve given them.”