By now, you’ve probably heard all about Central Catholic and new coach Ryan Lehmeier lighting up the scoreboard at the Wolvarena in a 43-7 win against Woodland Hills in his head coaching debut.
Lehmeier and the Vikings certainly appear to be the real deal, but he’s not the only first-time head coach who scored an impressive debut win last Friday at a program with big-time expectations.
Bethel Park is coming off a 10-win season that saw the Black Hawks earn a No. 1 seed for the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs — certainly no easy feat — while reaching the WPIAL semifinals and finally ascending into the team coach Brian DeLallo envisioned they could be when he took over for longtime coach Jeff Metheny in 2019. After only four seasons at the helm, though, DeLallo decided to step away from coaching to focus on his health.
In stepped 31-year-old offensive coordinator Phil Peckich, a 2010 Montour graduate who had three years of experience calling plays and running the offense under DeLallo after spending the previous five seasons coaching under Lou Cerro at Montour. He might be one of the youngest coaches in the WPIAL, but Peckich knows the game inside and out on both sides of the ball. A former walk-on defensive back at Pitt, he specialized in defense as a player, but he’s made a name for himself now as an offensive play caller.
Still, after graduating 24 seniors from a team that finished 10-2 overall and won the Allegheny Six Conference title, many questioned whether Bethel Park would struggle to approach last year’s success under Peckich’s direction this fall.
It’s still too early to call, but so far, so good for the Black Hawks after a second-half shutout on defense led to a 33-10 win at North Hills’ famed Martorelli Stadium on Friday night.
“It was pretty cool, man. It was a full crowd, for sure,” Peckich said. “I think [Martorelli Stadium] is one of the more special venues in the WPIAL. I had some memories there as a sophomore, when we won a semifinal game there to go to Heinz Field. It was pretty cool to go back and coach my first game there in that type of environment.”
Bethel Park actually found itself trailing, 10-6, in the second quarter, before taking a 12-10 halftime lead on a 7-yard touchdown run by JaVaughn Moore. That gave the Black Hawks some much needed momentum going into the locker room — and whatever Peckich said in his first halftime speech as head coach clearly worked. Bethel Park outscored the Indians 21-0 in the second half, with Tanner Pfeuffer launching a 38-yard TD pass to Mitch Paschl in the third quarter followed by a pair of fourth-quarter TD runs by David Dennison to polish off Peckich’s first victory.
“The defense played awesome,” Peckich said. “They forced two turnovers, and we had a chance at a couple more. They really put us in a good position to succeed in that second quarter and in that second half.
“There weren’t many halftime adjustments, but there were a few key ones, and the players really went out and executed the plan.”
Elsewhere, Elizabeth Forward rolled over Ringgold, 37-0, in a game that was supposed to be the first home game of John DeMarco’s career as head coach. Instead, a power outage at the stadium forced the game to be moved to the Rams’ home stadium, screwing with all the plans DeMarco had arranged in the process.
DeMarco will have to wait a little longer for his first home win, but his first win as head coach in the school district he has lived in for 50 years was just as sweet.
“I think when I walked across the field when we ran out, that’s when it really hit me,” DeMarco said. “I guess it was good to get that first one out of the way. … It was a little different when I walked out. It was like, ‘Whoa, here we go.’ ”
Like Bethel Park, the Warriors lost a ton of talent from a team that enjoyed a lot of success in 2022. Elizabeth Forward finished 9-2 overall last fall and is only three years removed from a trip to the WPIAL Class 3A championship game, but gone are standout quarterback Zion White and explosive receiver Zach Boyd, among others.
The Warriors are using a two-quarterback system featuring junior Charlie Nigut and sophomore Ryan Messina for now, with the small-but-speedy Nigut also being deployed as a slot back, wideout and kick returner. Meanwhile, Bucknell recruit Charlie Meehleib is back to anchor the offensive and defensive lines, and junior linebacker Jace Brown enjoyed a solid debut on Friday in his first game action as the starting tailback on offense.
“They had some really great players last year,” DeMarco said. “I’m fortunate that we’ve got a lot of great players coming back.”
After serving as an assistant at Elizabeth Forward in two previous stints under head coach Mike LeDonne, winning his first game as head coach was a special moment for DeMarco. Still, he knows the standard has been raised considerably over the years for what is expected of the Warriors, and he still has a long ways to go before winning over the fan base.
“I’ve been around a lot of really good teams,” DeMarco said. “I coached at Clairton with Tyler Boyd and won a lot of championships with those guys, so you see what it takes. And I look at the characteristics of the guys we’ve got, and I see the same thing.
“It’s easy when everything is going well. Once you get in a game where you have a little adversity, then you really see what kind of team you have.”
Serra’s future looks bright with Stribling under center
Although Serra Catholic lost its season opener on the road, there was certainly no shame in the Eagles’ 49-42 defeat at Class 4A No. 5 North Catholic.
After falling into a 14-0 hole in the opening quarter, Serra answered with back-to-back touchdown passes from junior quarterback Quadir Stribling to pull even — a familiar theme on the night — one on a 54-yard pass to Christian Warren, and another 37-yard score to De’reon Washington. The Trojans then took a 21-14 lead into the second quarter before the Eagles tied things up again, this time on a 31-yard pass from Stribling to Mason Jonus.
North Catholic scored twice more to take a 35-21 third-quarter lead, but again, Serra struck back behind two more TD passes from Stribling to Washington — one from 12 yards out and another from 42 yards out to tie the score. The Trojans scored twice more, including a 39-yard pick-six by Jack Fennell late in the fourth quarter to make it 49-35, but even with the game seemingly out of reach, Stribling kept on scoring. His 44-yard scoring strike to Jesere Young cut it to 49-42, but the Eagles’ comeback attempt fell just short.
“One thing we were happy about is, our kids never laid down,” Serra coach Jose Regus said. “They never quit. Somebody has to win, somebody has to lose, but there’s a difference in laying down.”
Stribling finished the game with 35 completions in 49 attempts, passing for a whopping 442 yards and six touchdowns. His lone interception proved costly, but overall, it was a star-making performance for a QB with an extremely bright future.
“He left about 100 yards on the field,” Regus said. “He threw for 1,500 yards last year, sharing reps. We expect a lot out of him. He set the bar kind of high throwing for 400 [last week], but I think he can go past that.”
Look out for Washington, too. After waiting his turn behind a crop of since-graduated receivers led by Amire Spencer (61 catches, 1,303 yards, 14 TDs in 2022), Washington appears ready to break out in a big way. After catching just three passes for 29 yards as a sophomore, the 5-11, 175-pound junior reeled in 12 passes for 180 yards and three scores on opening night.
After hosting Seton LaSalle on Friday night in their home opener, the Eagles will visit Class 2A No. 3 Washington in what could be another high-scoring affair next week.
“Our kids are ironmen out here. We’re a [Class] 1A school playing in [Class] 2A,” Regus said. “We’ve got to live or die on Quadir’s arm. It is what it is.”