Despite going unbeaten in Northeast Conference play and earning a No. 2 seed for the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs, Penn Hills coach Charles Morris heard a lot of chatter about his team facing a possible first-round exit last Friday against No. 7 Penn-Trafford.
The second-year coach did his best to block out the noise, choosing not to address it with his team. But in today’s digital age, kids see pretty much everything on social media, and Morris knows that. So was there a little extra incentive for star quarterback Julian Dugger and Co. to put on a show and issue a statement to the rest of the Class 5A field with an eye-opening 63-28 beatdown?
What do you think?
“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t,” Morris said. “I’m sure somebody took a screenshot and sent it to this kid or this kid. I try to just keep our kids humble and do things with integrity and do things the right way, and we don’t worry about those types of things.
“I don’t know if people were really high on us. Some are high, some are doubters. I heard a lot of things about us losing last week. Our goals were always just to focus on what we can control.”
Well, if the Indians (9-2) needed some added motivation going into their quarterfinal round matchup, that shouldn’t be the case this Friday for a WPIAL semifinal showdown against conference-rival Pine-Richland. These two powerhouse programs know each other all too well, and they already engaged in a heated battle on Sept. 8, won by Penn Hills, 26-20.
For the rematch at North Hills’ Martorelli Stadium at 7 p.m. Friday, a spot in next Saturday’s WPIAL championship game is on the line — representing a potential first trip to the title game for Dugger (6-4, 210), a future Pitt quarterback who already helped the Indians win a WPIAL title in basketball in March. For the No. 3 Rams (8-3), it represents a chance to get back to the WPIAL finals for the second year in a row, as they seek to repeat their memorable feat from 2022 by capturing WPIAL and state titles after a 3-3 start.
“We’re fine with those three losses,” LeDonne said. “At the end of the day, we put ourselves in position to be playing this Friday night for a chance to go to the championship. At the beginning of the year, our goal wasn’t to go undefeated, it was to go play for a championship. We’re right where we need to be. We’re excited and ready to go.
“It’s all a familiar story for us.”
Pine-Richland didn’t quite match Penn Hills’ offensive output in its 51-6 quarterfinal win against No. 6 Bethel Park on Friday, but the Rams’ win was even more one-sided, showcasing their dominant defense as well as their punishing rushing attack led by senior Ethan Pillar. A running back who doubles as a Wildcat quarterback, Pillar rushed for 169 yards and four TDs in the win against the Black Hawks, and he has already proven this year he’s willing to take on as big of a workload as LeDonne and the rest of the coaching staff will give him.
In case you haven’t heard, Pillar carried the ball 56 times for 287 yards in a 26-19 upset win over Class 6A No. 1 Central Catholic on Oct. 6. He now has 1,401 yards rushing and 22 total TDs on the season, while senior running back Amir Key leads the Indians with 901 yards rushing to go with nine scores. As far as Morris is concerned, though, the biggest problem Pine-Richland presents comes in the form of its gargantuan offensive line, led by Wisconsin recruit Ryan Cory. And as most coaches often do, Morris expects the game to be decided in the trenches — and he believes he has the big boys up front capable of getting the job done.
“I think the strength of their team is the offensive and defensive line,” Morris said. “I think it starts with the big guys up front. Those guys open some good holes for [Pillar] and move the line of scrimmage. Our work is cut out for us. … I think our guys are ready for the challenge and they’re excited for the challenge.”
When these teams first squared off at Pine-Richland back in Week 2, tensions flared before kickoff as Dugger exchanged words with Rams linebacker Evan Johnson at midfield. Both players made big plays throughout the game, but it was Dugger who had the last laugh, rushing for 148 yards and a pair of touchdowns in one of the signature wins of his storied career.
Now, Dugger has Penn Hills on the cusp of a spot in the WPIAL title game for the second time, having come up just short in the 2021 WPIAL semifinals in a 14-9 defeat against Moon. Back then, Dugger was just a sophomore southpaw relying on his elite athletic ability and natural gifts to excel in arguably the WPIAL’s toughest classification. Now, he is a polished veteran with impeccable poise and complete command of the Indians’ high-powered offense — and his physical tools are second to none.
For the season, Dugger has completed 95-of-182 passes for 1,585 yards and 20 TDs to just three interceptions while rushing for 703 yards and 10 TDs on 109 carries. That gives him 4,923 yards passing and 1,866 yards rushing for his career, meaning he has an outside chance to surpass both 5,000 yards passing and 2,000 yards rushing for his career on Friday night. He also has 79 total TDs for his career (55 passing, 24 rushing).
“Just the size alone and then the athleticism he brings with it — his speed is very deceiving, because he’s such a long strider,” LeDonne said. “He’s very long and athletic. You can’t stop your feet on him or he’s going to stiff arm you and break tackles. We’re going to need a lot of hats on the football to get him down.”
Considering his stints at both schools and the impact he made, it’s hard to deny that this matchup means a little bit more to LeDonne. He is one of only three coaches to win a WPIAL title at two different schools, having led Penn Hills to a WPIAL and PIAA title in 2018 before doing the same in his first year at Pine-Richland in 2022. And having coached Dugger for the first two years of his high school career, he knows all too well how dangerous he is with both his arm and his legs.
“Especially the relationships that we built with those guys — it was so tough leaving, but it was a family decision that needed to be made based on the opportunity and where we lived,” LeDonne said. “There were no hard feelings. I keep in touch with them. It’s going to be tough on Friday night. Those guys are going to get up for it, and we’re going to be up for it as well.”
The Indians have won each of the two matchups between the teams since LeDonne left to join the Rams, so there’s nothing LeDonne would love more than to get his first win against his former team when the stakes are at their highest. And for Morris, getting his first playoff win last week was sweet, but taking Penn Hills to the promised land in only his second year at the helm would be a whole lot sweeter.
“I think if we execute, we always have a chance,” Morris said. “We’ve just got to be in tune with all phases and all levels of the game. I think if we do, we’re a very difficult team to match up with.
“We have a saying around here — make things undeniable. If you put all your preparation and confidence in what you do and we’re aligned correctly and blocking the right guys, there’s nothing we should worry about. Just go out there and play to the best of our ability, and make things undeniable.”
Other Class 5A semifinal
Another rematch between conference rivals is on tap for the other Class 5A semifinal at 7 p.m. Friday, as top-ranked Peters Township (11-0) puts its perfect record on the line against Moon (6-5) at South Fayette High School. The Allegheny Six Conference foes squared off at Peters Township on Oct. 6, when the Indians toppled the Tigers by a score of 40-7. That has been the story of Peters Township’s season, with 10 of its 11 wins coming by 25 points or more and only one opponent managing to score more than 10 points against the Indians’ vaunted defense.
In a first-round matchup against No. 8 Franklin Regional, Peters Township posted its fifth shutout of the season in a commanding 35-0 victory. Meanwhile, Moon outlasted Gateway in arguably the most exciting game of the opening round, with a late interception in the end zone sealing the Tigers’ 35-31 win inside enemy territory. Moon used its powerful rushing attack to wear down the Gators’ defense and grind out the win behind 165 yards rushing and three TDs from senior Josh Bladel.
Many are likely expecting another one-sided verdict in the Indians’ favor, as Peters Township boasts the highest-scoring offense in all of Class 5A (40 ppg) coupled with the No. 1 scoring defense in the entire WPIAL (5.9 ppg). Needless to say, it will take a miraculous effort for the Tigers to pull off what would be a monumental upset — but anything is possible come playoff time.
After getting a week of rest following the regular season, the four Class 6A championship hopefuls will return to the field on Friday for a pair of WPIAL semifinal showdowns. No. 1 Central Catholic (9-1) takes on No. 4 Mt. Lebanon (5-5) at Fox Chapel High School, while No. 2 North Allegheny (9-1) hosts No. 3 Canon-McMillan (6-4), with both games beginning at 7 p.m.
The Vikings and Tigers each lay claim to two of the area’s most explosive offenses, with Central ranking No. 3 in the WPIAL in scoring (45.7 ppg) and North Allegheny ranking No. 4 (45.5 ppg). Most are expecting the two perennial powers to meet once again in the WPIAL title game in a rematch of last year’s Class 6A final won by the Tigers, 35-21, but both teams have business to take care of first.
For the Vikings, a rematch against the Blue Devils is on tap after Central won the first meeting in a 49-0 blowout at Mt. Lebanon on Sept. 15. The rematch could be equally lopsided, as the new-look Vikings have proven to be the cream of the crop in Class 6A all season long.
Senior quarterback Payton Wehner finished second in the WPIAL during the regular season with 2,456 yards passing and threw 32 touchdowns to go with only four interceptions, and senior running back Elijah Faulkner rushed for 1,152 yards and 17 scores. Penn State recruit Peter Gonzalez headlines an ultra-talented receiving corps for Central after catching 34 passes for 891 yards and 12 TDs during the regular season, while fellow senior Vernon Settles hauled in a team-leading 39 passes for 611 yards and eight TDs. Senior running back Fred LaSota has been the Blue Devils’ most productive player on offense, finishing the regular season with 474 yards rushing and six TDs.
North Allegheny might face a bit of a tougher test in its semifinal showdown with the Big Macs, although the Tigers did cruise to a 30-6 win in their first meeting on Sept. 1. Since a 50-22 loss against Central on Sept. 22, North Allegheny has won five games in a row entering the postseason, with all five wins coming by 25 points or more.
One of the district’s most underrated signal callers, Tigers quarterback Logan Kushner passed for 1,207 yards and 17 touchdowns with just three interceptions during the regular season, and he also rushed for a team-leading 755 yards along with 12 TDs on the ground. Senior running back Tyree Alualu wasn’t far behind, finishing with 748 yards rushing and 15 TDs, and senior receiver Khiryn Boyd led the team with 20 receptions for 448 yards to go with 10 TDs. As for Canon-Mac, a big game from senior running back Zach Welsh could be the key to pulling off the upset. Welsh rushed for 1,291 yards (tops in Class 6A) and 10 touchdowns during the regular season.