You simply never know what you’re going to see on any given Friday night in WPIAL football.

Fans at Pine-Richland High School packed the stadium to see the Rams host the top-ranked team in Class 6A last Friday, the previously unbeaten and borderline unstoppable Central Catholic Vikings. The rivalry between the two programs runs deep, and although it is only a nonconference game these days with Pine-Richland playing in Class 5A, there was an undeniable big-game aura in the atmosphere leading up to kickoff.

Still, nobody could have guessed they would witness the historic performance that was about to unfold.

As night began to fall and the temperature began to drop, fans in the stands began to realize the magnitude of what was taking place — and not just because the Rams were en route to a stunning 26-19 upset win that sent shock waves all around the WPIAL. With senior quarterback Kanan Huffman missing the game with an injury, Pine-Richland coach Jon LeDonne decided to bring back the Wildcat offense, which the Rams employed with a great deal of success on their way to winning WPIAL and PIAA titles last season. This time, senior tailback Ethan Pillar assumed the role of Wildcat QB — only instead of lining up with a wide receiver or two on the outside, Pine-Richland brought in two extra tight ends and a fullback to beef up its line as much as possible, with all 10 offensive bodies bunched in together to pave the way for Pillar.

“We said, ‘Let’s go ahead and pack the box and see if their DBs want to come into the box and do this as well,’” LeDonne said. “We talked to Ethan about holding onto the ball and getting 3 or 4 yards a pop and moving the sticks and keeping their offense off the field.”

Play after play, drive after drive, the Rams lined up in the same offensive formation and ran the same play over and over — a direct snap to Pillar — hiding none of their intentions while daring the Vikings’ heralded defense to stop them. Fifty-six carries, 287 yards and three touchdowns later, Pillar’s name was forever etched in stone — not just at Pine-Richland, but in all of WPIAL lore.

Senior running back Ethan Pillar, pictured in a game against Penn Hills earlier this season, set what is believed to be a WPIAL record with 56 carries in a 26-19 upset win against Central Catholic on Friday. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Pillar’s 56 carries are believed to be the most ever in a single game in more than 100 years of WPIAL football — a downright unthinkable accomplishment considering all of the great running backs who have called Western Pa. home over the past century. On top of that, his 287-yard performance is the Rams’ new single-game rushing record — and he already has his name on the locker-room leader board to prove it.

“That was pretty shocking when I saw that stat line,” Pillar said. “Ever since I was little, we got to look at that board and hoped that we would put our names on it. I’m glad my name is finally on it with some of the best names at Pine-Richland.”

By the way, that Central Catholic defense features three Power Five recruits in the front seven — linebackers Anthony Speca (Penn State) and Cole Sullivan (Michigan) and defensive tackle Ty Yuhas (Pitt) — all bona fide game-wreckers known for controlling the line of scrimmage, stopping the run and striking fear into opposing quarterbacks. None of that seemed to matter to Pillar, though. After all, he has the luxury of running behind a vaunted offensive line led by another blue-chip recruit who will be playing big-time college football in senior guard Ryan Cory (Wisconsin).

The Vikings’ high-powered spread offensive generated most of the headlines going into Friday’s game — they entered the matchup averaging an even 50 ppg — but when it was all said and done, Pillar, Cory and company proved that an old-school, run-first approach can still get the job done.

“I think after the second full series when we came down and took the lead, 7-6 — I think Ethan got most of those carries there, and he came off to the sideline and said, ‘Let me have it,’” LeDonne said. “The offensive linemen wanted it, and we challenged them all week with the guys they were facing, three Power Five guys in the middle there. We didn’t think having a traditional offense against them would be successful.”

After news began to spread of Pillar’s absurd stat line on social media, some commenters suggested that his 56-carry effort wasn’t something to be proud of, with former Gateway star Justin King even going as far as to call it “child abuse.”

For his part, Pillar claims that he had no issues with the workload, and neither did his parents. In fact, he credits the “Bill Pillar conditioning circuit” that he and his friends used to suffer through in their youth football days for instilling the toughness and grit he put on full display in Friday’s game.

And remember, Pillar (5-11, 205) is no easy load to bring down. Oftentimes, the hard-nosed bruiser is the one inflicting punishment at the end of his runs rather than receiving it. On top of that, he is only a one-way player, meaning he gets to spend half the game resting and watching tape on the sideline while the defense is on the field. All in all, he was no worse for wear by Monday morning, and he insists he’s ready for another 50-carry game whenever the situation calls for it — or maybe even more.

“His dad said he would have taken another 20 carries. [His parents] had no issue with it,” LeDonne said. “It’s just his preparation. We see his work ethic in the weight room and conditioning and all the extra stuff he does on the side. He’s a product of his family, and they’re really good, tough people. He’s one of our toughest kids on the team, and he’s built for that.”

Pine-Richland running back Ethan Pillar takes a breather during drills in Pine on Aug. 15. Pillar rushed for 1,056 yards and 13 TDs as a junior while helping the Rams win WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A titles, and he’s on pace to blow past those numbers in 2023. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Coming off a 1,056-yard, 13-touchdown season as a junior while sharing the backfield with 2022 PUP co-Player of the Year Ryan Palmieri, Pillar now sits at 1,980 yards rushing for his career, and he is almost certain to surpass the 2,000-yard mark when Pine-Richland hosts Shaler on Friday. For the season, he is now up to 822 yards on 130 carries with 10 TDs, ranking him among the rushing leaders in the WPIAL and putting him on track for a stellar senior season.

“Last year, Palmieri would carry the ball 25-30 times and then make 15-20 tackles on defense as well,” LeDonne said. “But those kids come from great families, tough families. They’re tough kids, and they want that responsibility.”

Despite those projections and his contributions last season in helping the Rams win WPIAL and state titles — not to mention his record-setting performance last Friday — Pillar has yet to receive his first official scholarship offer. One can only imagine that Friday’s game has put Pillar on the radar of several nearby college coaches at the Division II level, and if he can find a way to take Pine-Richland deep into the postseason again while carrying the load on his shoulders, it would make him almost impossible for schools to ignore.

Such is the nature of recruiting in the post-COVID-19, NIL-fueled, transfer portal-infested world of college football we live in now, though. For now, all Pillar is focused on is doing whatever it takes to help the Rams win football games — and if that requires a bit more bumps and bruises and a few more postgame trips to the hot tub, then so be it.

And after knocking off the unbeaten No. 1 team in Class 6A for the second season in a row, you can bet Pillar and his teammates are feeling the similarities to last year’s championship team — a team that also lost three early season contests before winning 12 in a row to finish off the year.

“I’m just really happy that we won, because a lot of people were doubting us,” Pillar said. “Playing in front of all my friends in the stands, my parents, and then coming out with the victory and seeing everybody jumping for joy. … The vibe around the stadium is that we’re getting back on our horse, and we’re coming for the championship again. Two rings would be nice.

“I definitely think this team has what it takes to do what last year’s team did. We held those guys to such a high standard, and we’ve just been working as hard as we can since February. It’s time for it to pay off.”

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at