Outside of traditional blue bloods Central Catholic and North Allegheny, who has been the most impressive team overall so far in 2023?
You could make the argument for a few different teams, and it depends on the criteria you’re looking for. No matter what the prerequisites are, though, Class 5A No. 1 Peters Township (4-0) certainly fits the bill.
You want offensive firepower? The Indians have plenty. They’re averaging 38 ppg (tops in Class 5A), and they’ve scored at least 34 points in all four contests so far. But perhaps you’re a believer that defense wins championships? If so, then this could be the year Peters finally captures its first WPIAL crown. The Indians have two shutouts in four games and have yet to allow more than seven points in a game, averaging a measly 3.5 ppg allowed (tops in the WPIAL).
And before you accuse them of facing a subpar schedule, consider that Peters is the only team to beat Trinity (3-1) so far this year, and the Indians had no trouble handling the Hillers on the road in a 34-7 win on Sept. 8. South Fayette (2-2) was ranked No. 5 in Class 5A just two weeks ago, but the Lions looked like they had no business being on the same field as Peters when the Indians traveled to South Fayette and posted a 35-0 shutout last Friday.
With a resume like that, the only question is what took so long for Peters to rise to the top spot in the Class 5A rankings?
“I’m not sure how many weeks we’ve been No. 1 in years past. I’m not even sure if we ever have, really,” said Peters coach T.J. Plack. “There’s definitely a lot of excitement building.”
After showing some promise late in his freshman campaign, sophomore quarterback Nolan DiLucia usurped senior Chris Cibrone as the starting signal caller after Cibrone passed for nearly 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2022 — a bold move by Plack to say the least, but one that has certainly paid off. Through four games, DiLucia (6-2, 175) has completed 49 of 82 passes for 623 yards with six TDs and three interceptions while also showcasing his dual-threat ability with 31 carries for 159 yards and three rushing scores.
Plack said Cibrone is still expected to see time under center at some point this season, but in order to do what was best for DiLucia and the team — both now and for the following seasons to come — he had to go with his gut.
“We wanted to play [Cibrone] a little bit more at times, but when it comes down to it, when I’m looking at the growth of the team, Nolan has to feel comfortable as well,” Plack said.
DiLucia has had no shortage of receivers to spread the ball around to this year, with four senior wideouts playing key roles in the passing game and several other underclassmen pushing for more targets.
All four seniors are getting it done in a variety of ways for Peters while bringing their own unique set of skills. Nate Miller has a team-high 18 receptions, while senior Carter Shanafelt leads the team with 149 receiving yards and three TDs. Ethan Wertman has nine catches for 122 yards and a TD, and Thomas Aspinall has six receptions for 112 yards and a score.
Meanwhile, junior Nick McCullough is a top-notch cornerback who is making it harder and harder for Plack to keep him off the field on offense. The younger brother of last year’s leading receiver Brendan McCullough, Nick McCullough has four receptions for 46 yards in limited action so far this season.
“I think we’re about eight or nine deep at our receiver position,” Plack said. “Carter has been here forever it seems like. He’s done such a great job, and he’s a very dynamic young man for us all over the field. He’s our kicker and punter.”
Plack wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the Indians’ rushing attack this season, but the tandem of Vinny Sarcone and Preston Blair is working wonders so far. A bruising, physical runner, Sarcone leads the team with 245 yards and six TDs on 61 carries after his two-touchdown performance against South Fayette. Blair is the more elusive of the two, and he is up to 193 yards rushing with four TDs on 30 carries on the year.
Still, as well-rounded and efficient as the offense has been, defense remains the hallmark of Peters’ program since Plack took over in 2016. This year is no different, with only two touchdowns allowed through four games by a unit that takes tremendous pride in every snap. The Indians fly to the ball on defense while remaining disciplined and focused on their individual assignments, and the results speak for themselves.
“For years now, for us, for sure, we’ve been a defensive-minded team,” Plack said. “The last couple years, we kind of struggled with some things [offensively], but our defense has always kept us in games. … The game is won in the trenches and on the defensive side of the ball. I don’t care what level you’re at.”
Of course, Peters also got off to an impressive 3-0 start last season before fizzling out late and just missing out on a postseason berth in Class 5A. Still, there’s an undeniable sense that this year’s team is different. They’re older, more mature, more experienced, more talented and just plain better.
It has been four years since the Indians narrowly lost to Gateway in the WPIAL title game, but this year’s group might just be their best chance yet to win the whole thing — just don’t tell it to Plack.
“We have blinders on,” Plack said. “We’re zoned in on the team in front of us.”
That team this week happens to be Class 5A No. 5 Upper St. Clair (4-0), one of the team’s fiercest rivals and perhaps their main challenger for the Allegheny Six Conference title this season. Needless to say, Peters fans are already gearing up for one of their biggest home games in years on Friday night in front of what should be a jam-packed house.
“Obviously, we’re both coming in undefeated. They’re right down the road, Route 19. It’s homecoming for us. It has everything,” Plack said. “Our kids know each other really well. It’s kind of nice. It’s kind of pure and nice to have that kind of a rivalry and have the kids chirping at each other. I think it’s healthy.
“Let’s have fun with it, and let’s play the game Friday night. We’re definitely excited about it.”
Wrona racking up gaudy numbers at Mohawk
If you said you expected Mohawk to be the highest-scoring offense in Class 2A through four games, take a bow — then apologize for lying and ask for forgiveness.
Believe it or not, the Class 2A No. 4 Warriors (3-1) are tops in the classification at an average of 38 ppg, and they’ve scored at least 28 points in all four games so far while taking on quality foes such as Laurel and defending WPIAL Class 1A champion Union. That season-opening 40-37 loss to the Scotties turned out to be more than just a flash in the pan, as Mohawk has since rattled off three consecutive wins to emerge as a legitimate WPIAL title contender.
At the forefront of the Warriors’ resurgence is senior quarterback Jay Wrona, who has completed 49 of 83 attempts for 966 yards and a WPIAL-leading 17 TDs through four games. Sophomore Bobby Fadden has been Wrona’s top target so far, ranking ninth in the WPIAL with 353 yards receiving on 17 catches while turning seven of those receptions into TDs.
In last week’s 45-0 win at Riverside, Wrona completed 16 of 21 passes for 179 yards while accounting for five total TDs (three passing, two rushing). Mohawk hosts New Brighton on Friday before traveling to Ellwood City for a high-stakes Midwestern Conference matchup next week.
North Allegheny adding fuel to fire ahead of clash with Central Catholic
As if the much-hyped Game of the Week between Central Catholic and North Allegheny needed any further promotion, the Tigers (4-0) were happy to provide it via social media this week — at least temporarily.
First, North Allegheny shared the following graphic on its official X (formerly Twitter) page on Monday morning, referring to Central (4-0) as the “Western Pa. Vikings” — complete with a homemade Vikings logo — in an obvious jab at Central’s borderless roster filled with players from all over the area.
The tweet was deleted later that day, but the Tigers’ social media team was just getting started. On Wednesday morning, the same team account posted a video of players and coaches walking out of the locker room for practice while answering the question, “Where do you live?”
Again, the tweet was deleted shortly after causing another uproar, but the damage had already been done. There was already plenty of bad blood between these teams to begin with, but this WPIAL championship rematch just became even more personal going into the most anticipated game of the year on Friday night. Get your popcorn ready.