Stop me if you’ve heard this before — Central Catholic is going to be good.
Like, really good.
One thing is for certain, though — these aren’t your dad’s or your granddad’s Vikings.
Friday night’s 43-7 beatdown at the Wolvarena against fellow historic powerhouse Woodland Hills marked not only the beginning of the 2023 season but also the start of a new era at Central, where the venerable Terry Totten roamed the sidelines for the previous 21 seasons, including 18 as head coach. Totten resigned after the 2022 season with a career record of 188-40, along with six WPIAL championships and two state titles. He’s still on the sideline with the Vikings, but in more of a supporting role rather than actively coaching.
In his place stepped first-time head coach Ryan Lehmeier, a North Hills grad and former assistant at Pine-Richland and Seneca Valley with no prior connection to Central or its football program. An acclaimed play caller and bona fide offensive guru who served as offensive coordinator for some of the most potent offenses in WPIAL history at Pine-Richland under Eric Kasperowicz, Lehmeier was always considered a hot commodity in terms of future head coaching prospects.
Still, questions lingered about how he would handle the pressure of his first head coaching gig at such a prestigious program, all while taking over for a revered coach like Totten as his predecessor.
It may be only one game into the “Lehmeier Era,” but you can consider those questions answered.
“I don’t think I was nervous. I think there are just more responsibilities,” Lehmeier said. “I was more excited. I thought we had a great week of practice and preparation. It’s not about me, it’s about these kids. … If you watched them work, there was nothing to be nervous about.”
Gone are the days of the Vikings’ run-heavy, ground-and-pound style of football on offense. Many anticipated Lehmeier and new offensive coordinator Ryan Reitz to completely overhaul Central’s offensive scheme, and, boy, did they ever.
Here’s a good barometer to measure how fast the Vikings were moving on Friday night — if you blinked, you probably missed their next play. If you looked down at your phone to send a text message, you probably missed the next three. And if you even thought about getting up to go to the concession stand, you were definitely going to miss the whole series.
After winning the opening coin toss and choosing to receive, Central put the pedal on full throttle and never let up. After an 89-yard kick return touchdown to open the game by Xxavier Thomas got called back by a penalty, the Vikings started the game with three consecutive running plays in a span of about 30 seconds before senior quarterback Payton Wehner started spreading the ball around to his stable of talented receivers.
By the time Central punched it into the end zone on a 9-yard TD pass from Wehner to Penn State recruit Pete Gonzalez, the Wolverines were already reeling and gasping for breath — and they hadn’t even touched the ball yet.
“Schematically, things have obviously changed,” Gonzalez said. “But the toughness hasn’t changed. The culture around Central hasn’t changed. Coach Lehmeier has preserved that for us.”
Woodland Hills would respond with a quick strike of its own on a 62-yard catch-and-run TD from Cam Walter to Scoop Smith, but because the Vikings were successful on their 2-point conversion after the opening touchdown, they still held an 8-7 lead that they would never relinquish.
Moments later, Elijah Faulkner dived for the pylon and scored on a 7-yard run to make it a 14-7 lead for Central. The Wolverines responded with another impressive drive deep into Vikings territory, but a 30-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide left, and that was as close as they would come to scoring for the rest of the evening.
After wearing the Woodland Hills defense down blow-by-blow over the first two drives, Lehmeier decided to dial up the deep ball on the next two possessions — and both times, Wehner and his receivers answered the call. First it was senior Jacob Sassic who hauled in a 68-yard TD on a deep post to make it 21-7, then Gonzalez did the same thing for a 54-yard score on the first play of Central’s following drive. Another 2-point conversion made it 29-7 before halftime, and all of a sudden, the rout was on.
“The past two years, we haven’t won a Week 0 game,” Wehner said. “I think it was big to win the first game of the year, just to get stuff rolling.”
Wehner tossed two more TD passes in the third quarter — both to senior receiver Vernon Settles — and finished 14 of 18 for 298 yards passing and five TDs on the night. Settles eluded several defenders on his way to a 46-yard catch-and-run touchdown before reeling in a 6-yard reception for his second score, stretching the lead to 43-7 and activating the mercy rule. Gonzalez receives most of the headlines as the team’s go-to deep threat and jump ball specialist, but Settles is an ultra-reliable possession receiver who actually led the team with 52 receptions a year ago.
Then there’s Sassic, who was hardly on anybody’s radar going into Friday night. All he did was finish with four catches for 105 yards and a score as the team’s No. 3 wideout — and how could we forget Cole Sullivan? The Michigan recruit is known mostly for his standout linebacker play on defense, but he’s taking on an expanded role on offense this year as the Vikings’ starting tight end, and he had a solid showing on Friday with three catches for 37 yards while still flying around the field and making several big plays on defense.
“I’m just glad I’m able to help our team be the best they can and help our team succeed. That’s all I’m really worried about,” Sullivan said. “It was just a great feeling. We knew we had the talent. We knew we had the energy all offseason. It was just great to see it play out against a different opponent.”
With Sullivan leading the way along with fellow linebacker Anthony Speca (Penn State recruit) and defensive lineman Ty Yuhas (Pitt recruit), Central’s defense is still going to be as stout as ever this season. That’s one holdover from the “Totten Era” you can count on. But as for this new-look offense in the “Lehmeier Era” — well, let’s just say scoreboards will be lighting up wherever the Vikings go, stat keepers around Western Pa. will be put to the test, and some school records might be falling in the not-so-distant future.
“We obviously have a style of play, but we’re going to do what’s most opportunistic for our kids,” Lehmeier said. “I thought [against Woodland Hills] we played with a lot of balance on offense. We’re just going to continue to try to put kids in the best position possible to make plays.”