Pine-Richland captured WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A titles last season, but what many likely don’t remember from that memorable season was that the Rams started it with a 42-0 home loss.
The Rams begin the 2023 season with the same opponent, only this time they will make the three-hour drive to play that team on its own field.
Pine-Richland will have its hands full when it takes on Pickerington North, Ohio, in a Week 0 game Friday. Pickerington North, which is located near Columbus, competes in Division I, the largest classification in Ohio. The Panthers opened their season last Friday with a 39-35 win at Cincinnati Elder.
“They’re a couple of weeks ahead of us as just the season goes, with two scrimmages and one game,” Pine-Richland coach Jon LeDonne said. “They lost some key components from last year’s team to graduation but picked up a couple of guys who transferred in. They have an Ohio State commit at running back, and a lot of their other skill guys are back, so it will be a really big challenge for us.”
Pickerington North, which finished 7-5 last season, features a running back who hopes to shine just down the road at Ohio State in future years. Senior Sam Williams-Dixon scored 41 touchdowns at West Holmes High School last season before transferring to Pickerington North in the offseason. He ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries in his debut last week.
“He’s kind of like a typical Ohio State running back,” LeDonne said. “We watched him go 80 yards for a touchdown with his speed, but he also has a strong running style and runs through guys a lot. We’re going to have to rally to the football.”
Senior quarterback Landon O’Connell passed for 2,194 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. The Panthers also have a Power Five-bound defensive end in senior Angelo McCullom, an Illinois recruit.
Pine-Richland’s loss to Pickerington North last season came in LeDonne’s debut. But back in 2018 when LeDonne coached at Penn Hills, he guided the Indians to a season-opening win against another Ohio foe, Steubenville, a victory that propelled the Indians to a PIAA title.
Another WPIAL power opening the season with an Ohio opponent is Central Valley. The Warriors will make a much shorter drive to play Austintown Fitch, which is near Youngstown. Fitch is a Division II school that went 10-2 in 2022.
One of Fitch’s top players is senior cornerback Davion Pritchard, who is a Pitt commit. Senior quarterback DeShawn Vaughn threw for 1,431 yards, rushed for 412 and accounted for 25 total touchdowns last season. Senior Deshawn Vaughn Jr., who threw for 1,431 yards, rushed for 412 and scored 25 total touchdowns last season. Senior running back DJ Williams and senior lineman Xavier Dahn are both Ball State recruits. Williams rushed for 1,164 yards and 12 touchdowns a season ago.
Imani faces defending PIAA champs
Imani Christian won’t be making a trip to Ohio for a game this weekend. Instead, the Saints will travel to York to take on the defending PIAA Class 1A champion.
Imani Christian opens the season against Steelton-Highspire on Saturday. The game is part of the York Suburban Rose Bowl Kickoff Classic. Steelton-Highspire has won state titles two of the past three seasons and should be in the championship mix again this season. The Steamrollers defeated WPIAL champion Union, 22-8, in last season’s final.
Steelton-Highspire features senior twin brothers Alex and Andrew Erby. Alex (6-4, 210) is a quarterback and Andrew (6-4, 280) a lineman. Alex has passed for 9,142 yards and 114 yards in his career and has offers from Pitt, Penn State and Nebraska, among others. He should have an excellent shot at breaking the state career passing record held by former South Fayette star Brett Brumbaugh (11,084 yards). Andrew’s list of offers includes West Virginia, Nebraska and Louisville. Their father, Andrew, is Steelton-Highspire’s head coach.
A season ago, Steelton-Highspire defeated Bishop Canevin, 21-14, in Week 0 before suffering its only loss of the season when the Steamrollers were beaten by Westinghouse, 39-18.
Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak hopes to settle on one starting quarterback eventually, but it could be at least a few more weeks before it happens.
Cherpak said Tuesday that the competition between senior Brody Evans and junior Luke Kosko is still too close to call and that he will “definitely” play both when Thomas Jefferson travels to Franklin Regional for the season opener Friday. Cherpak said that the quarterbacks are still rotating with the first team and it will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Evans is the returning starter who was 148 of 251 for 1,986 yards, 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season while leading Thomas Jefferson to the WPIAL Class 4A semifinals. Kosko was the starter at Seton LaSalle his freshman season before transferring to Thomas Jefferson for his sophomore year. He then sat out last season due to transfer rules. Cherpak said that Kosko, who has scholarship offers from Marshall and Charlotte, has one of the strongest arms he has coached in his 29 seasons.
Meanwhile, Pine-Richland coach Jon LeDonne said that he also hopes to play two quarterbacks against Pickerington North. Senior Kanan Huffman has been battling it out with talented freshman Aaron “Oobi” Strader for the starting job. Huffman was the starter at the beginning of last season, but LeDonne eventually moved running back Ryan Palmieri to quarterback. The Rams went on to win WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A titles.
Said LeDonne, “Kanan has matured and improved and hasn’t done anything to lose [the competition], but at the same time, Oobi has been making a lot of plays that you don’t expect a freshman to make. He adds another dimension with his speed and footwork, as well. We told them that they’re going to dictate who is on the field.”