When you think of the top Class 1A teams in the WPIAL in recent years, several schools come to mind — Clairton, Jeannette, Bishop Canevin and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, just to name a few.
Some might not believe it at first, but it’s about time to add the Cornell Raiders to that list.
In 2019, Cornell finished 9-2 overall and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion Clairton. In 2021, the Raiders finished 9-3 and made it to the WPIAL semifinals, again being vanquished by the eventual champion in Bishop Canevin. They stumbled to a 4-5 finish a year ago, but three weeks into the 2023 campaign, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team with a more impressive resume.
After starting the season with a 20-19 home win against Class 3A foe Seton LaSalle, it would have been easy to dismiss the game as just a win against a lower-quality opponent that hadn’t won a game in almost two years. But after seeing what the Rebels have done against a pair of top-notch Class 2A programs in Serra Catholic and Steel Valley in back-to-back weeks, that season-opening win by the Raiders is looking better and better by the day.
“That was a big win for the program, just playing a bigger school and being able to compete and see where we were early,” said Cornell coach Ed Dawson. “I was kind of leery of taking it at the beginning. But I thought it would be a good early test for our kids, just as a barometer.”
It would be one thing to win the season opener with a major upset and then start to crash back down to earth, but the Raiders have done the opposite. According to Dawson, they have steadily improved week by week, and he said their 20-6 win against Monessen in Week 1 was a much cleaner all-around performance than the win against Seton.
“Monessen was a gritty, tough game. They were so athletic,” Dawson said. “We’re still a young team ourselves. I like to use the analogy of a lion learning to bite before he shows his teeth. We’ve been learning how to win late in games and persevere.”
Still, few would have expected Class 1A No. 4 Cornell to still be undefeated heading into Week 3 after traveling to Lawrence County last Friday to take on defending WPIAL champion Union, then ranked No. 2 in Class 1A. Few outside the Raiders’ locker room, that is.
After trailing by a score of 14-12 going into halftime, Cornell came out of the break on fire and dominated the Scotties in the second half en route to an eye-opening 30-14 win. Sophomore running back Khylil Johnson had a breakout game for the Raiders, rushing for 179 yards and a pair of touchdowns to carry Cornell to victory.
For the season, Johnson has 417 yards on 33 carries, good for an average of 12.6 yards per rush.
“Nobody at Cornell is ever on anybody’s radar,” Dawson said. “We’ve had a lot of talent come through over the years. I don’t know if it’s just us being such a small school, but we’ve got kids here who play good football.”
Senior quarterback C.J. Jackson and senior wide receiver Drevon Newton have also displayed a strong connection, with Jackson passing for 360 yards and five TDs through three games and Newton leading the team with 10 grabs for 156 yards and a pair of scores. Junior Mikey Keyes (seven catches, 122 yards, TD) and senior Julian Cordice (112 yards rushing, 27 yards receiving, two TDs) are also making a big impact on offense, and each of them also play major roles on defense.
“It’s not a surprise to us. Maybe to other people, but we’ve got kids who work really hard and are committed to doing the best they can and being good football players,” Dawson said. “Defensively, we’re going to participate in every fight. If nothing else, we’re going to come to play.”
Although it’s still too early to tell whether the Raiders have what it takes to win their first WPIAL title in school history, early indications are that no team will want to run into this fierce and fearless squad come playoff time.
“These wins are great for the program, but we’ve got to win conference games now for it to really matter,” Dawson said. “They were all special games. I don’t want to minimize any of the things we’ve been able to accomplish so far, but winning these games from here on out is what’s most important.”
Storino steering Seton LaSalle toward major turnaround
Quick — after three weeks of play in 2023, who has been the most surprising team in the area so far this year?
Several teams can lay claim to that title, but if you had to narrow it down to one, you can’t go wrong with Seton LaSalle.
Sure, Seton is a Catholic school with a proud history that has churned out its fair share of notable players over the years — Bruce Gradkowski ring a bell? — but can anybody realistically say they saw this coming? The Rebels are 2-1 after three games, which might not sound crazy on the surface. But if you peel pack the layers and examine how they got to this point, you’ll realize just how unexpected this start is for Seton.
First off, the Rebels didn’t win a game in 2022, finishing 0-10 while losing all but two of their matchups by at least 25 points. The year before that, they finished 3-7, and before that, they went 1-6. That adds up to a record of 4-23 over the past three years, with four different head coaches having led the program since 2019. Current coach Tim Storino is in his second year at the helm after a winless campaign in 2022, and it’s safe to say things are finally starting to fall into place for Storino and his staff.
“The big thing here is, the players and coaches have to establish trust in each other. That doesn’t happen overnight,” Storino said. “Football is about development of athletes. They’ve got to buy in, but you can make a kid better than he is.”
After starting the season with a deflating 20-19 defeat at Cornell, Storino could have easily started to question whether he and his team were cursed or if they would ever find a way to win. But he never wavered in his approach, and the no-nonsense coach continued to emphasize perfecting the little things in practice and day-to-day life that would eventually pay off for Seton.
Sure enough, after a long wait of more than a year, that payoff is finally here.
Taking on one of the premier programs in Class 2A in Week 1, the Rebels went on the road to Serra Catholic and returned home victorious after dismantling the Eagles, 41-21, ending the team’s 11-game losing streak and securing their first win of Storino’s tenure. After the game, players such as senior running back O’Malley Daly began labeling this season as their “Revenge Tour” in posts on social media.
Daly ran for 170 yards and four touchdowns in that monumental win, and Storino knows he’s the horse Seton is going to have to ride in order to make a run in the postseason this year.
“He’s an extremely competitive human being,” Storino said. “Our players have unbelievable respect for him. I’m more proud of his behavior in between plays, in school, after school — he’s taken on a leadership role that he wasn’t capable of last year. He’s mature, he’s growing up, and he’s buying in.
“I think he’s the best player I’ve coached in 19 years, and I was at Central for four years. He’s just different.”
A 6-2, 225-pound wrecking ball, Daly is the Rebels’ unquestioned leader, and the rest of the players feed off his intensity and physicality. He put those traits on full display last Friday, racking up 110 yards and a trio of touchdowns while making 13 tackles on defense in a stunning 23-20 double-overtime win over defending WPIAL Class 2A champion Steel Valley.
“Steel Valley brought it,” Storino said. “That was one of the most physical games I’ve seen.”
While Daly is the heart and soul of the team, Storino said there is a handful of key players standing out in supporting roles, including several on the offensive line. And as far as the program’s centerpiece of the future, look no further than freshman wide receiver Khalil Taylor (6-1, 191). The explosive big-play threat is already drawing double teams after showcasing his elite talents early on this season, and Storino expects him to be a future Power Five player in college.
“This is a 14-year-old child, and he runs a 10.9 [second] 100-meter dash,” Storino said. “They know who he is. Just by him being on the field, they have to account for him.”
Junior Mikey Pastirik and sophomore Ray Miller have been splitting time at quarterback, and both have experienced success so far. Miller was under center for the win against Serra, while Pastirik completed his first nine passes against the Ironmen last week en route to the upset victory.
Although it’s still early in the season and Seton has yet to play a conference game, the excitement is certainly mounting after picking up back-to-back marquee wins going into conference play. Class 3A seems to be deeper than ever, and Belle Vernon is still a locked-in favorite to win its second consecutive WPIAL title. But these Rebels are hungrier than ever to make a deep playoff run, and they’ve already proven to have a flair for the dramatic.
No matter what happens the rest of the way, though, it seems clear that Seton’s head-coaching carousel is a thing of the past and that the Rebels have finally found their man in Storino.
“I’ve had five interviews in the last 48 hours. I guess that’s a good thing,” Storino said. “But our players are getting the recognition they deserve. They dealt with a lot. This program has been in turmoil for four years. Seton has a rich history, and we’re trying to bring back the Rebel pride.”
Wehner re-writing record books at Central
Despite his continued evolution as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the area and the terrific numbers he posted as a junior, Central Catholic quarterback Payton Wehner hardly received any attention from college coaches going into his senior year.
According to first-year coach Ryan Lehmeier, not much has changed for Wehner on the recruiting front so far this season. But if he keeps up his current level of play, it will soon be impossible for colleges to ignore him.
After becoming the first Vikings quarterback to surpass 2,000 yards in a season when he threw for 2,504 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago, Wehner (6-0, 180) is on pace to blow past those numbers this fall — and he has already added more school records to his resume while leading Class 6A No. 1 Central to a dominant 3-0 start. Through his first three games, Wehner has completed 42 of 55 attempts (76.4%) for 852 yards and 13 TDs with only one interception, along with 88 yards rushing and three additional scores on 15 carries.
Wehner delivered his finest performance yet in a 62-46 win against Bethel Park on Friday, totaling 344 yards (296 passing, 48 rushing) with a school-record seven TDs (five passing, two rushing) — doing all of his damage in the first half as the Vikings took a 42-point lead into the break. For his career, Wehner now has 4,863 yards passing and 59 total TDs to his credit while throwing just seven interceptions.