A few days before his team tussles with a talented group of Rams, Peters Township coach T.J. Plack chose to instead talk about another animal.
“First and foremost, I’ve got to mention the elephant in the room, and that’s the Ryan Cory kid,” Plack said, referencing the Pine-Richland right guard and Wisconsin recruit who has had a dominating season. “They have a couple of big kids up front that are athletic, a little bit nasty and can cause trouble. When they get in the wildcat they can kind of even the numbers up with those big guys and that power run game becomes problematic.”
Slowing down Pine-Richland’s wildcat attack has been a huge problem for teams the past two seasons, but it’s one that Peters Township will need to solve if it is to win its first WPIAL title.
Peters Township (12-0), the No. 1 seed, will face No. 3 Pine-Richland (9-3) in the WPIAL Class 5A championship at noon Saturday at Norwin High School. Pine-Richland is aiming to win its sixth title in 10 years and seventh overall. Peters Township lost in its previous two trips to the final, falling to Gateway in 2019 and Pine-Richland in 2020.
While Peters Township is the only unbeaten team in Class 5A and has won all of its games by double-digits, some might view Pine-Richland as the favorite. That’s because the Rams are the defending WPIAL and PIAA champions, are 6-0 since moving to the wildcat midseason, and own possibly the best win by any WPIAL team this season (a 26-19 triumph against Class 6A finalist Central Catholic).
“We’re going to need to move the football much like the Central Catholic game,” Pine-Richland coach Jon LeDonne said. “Offensively, they are really balanced, so we need to sustain drives and keep them off the field.”
The matchup between the Pine-Richland offense and Peters Township defense will be one of the most intriguing ones of this year’s championships. Behind wildcat quarterback Ethan Pillar and a fantastic offensive line led by Cory, Pine-Richland has reeled off six wins in a row following a 3-3 start. It’s similar to last season when a change to the wildcat (then led by all-state quarterback Ryan Palmieri) saw the Rams win their final 10 games. Pillar had a WPIAL-record 56 carries and ran for 297 yards and three touchdowns against Central Catholic.
“I think it’s been fairly good for us,” LeDonne said. “We get an extra blocker with the wildcat. Guys are getting downhill and running strong. We did have some hiccups in the semifinal game. It just seemed like Penn Hills was calling out every play from the sideline.”
Pillar, a senior who has rushed for 1,454 yards and 22 touchdowns, was limited to just 50 yards on 19 carries against Penn Hills. So, after not scoring a point the first three quarters, Pine-Richland moved to its traditional offense in the fourth quarter, and a touchdown run by freshman quarterback Aaron “Oobi” Strader with two seconds left helped give the Rams a dramatic 16-9 win.
Along with Cory (6 feet 4, 285 pounds), the Pine-Richland offensive line includes senior tackles Nate Brown (6-4, 260) and James Cardinali (6-6, 270), senior guard Jon Smith (6-1, 275) and senior center Connor Dripps (5-10, 260).
But how will that group fare against what might be the best defense Pine-Richland has faced all season? Peters Township, which features a 3-3-5 defense, has given up only 83 points this season, an average of 6.9 a game. There are 117 other teams in the WPIAL, but none have been stingier defensively.
Among the defensive standouts for Peters Township have been outside linebackers Mickey Vaccarello (6-3, 215) and Reston Lehman (6-3, 225). Both have FBS offers. Vaccarello, a junior, has been offered by Boston College and Syracuse, while Lehman, a sophomore, has offers from Central Michigan and Miami (Ohio).
“They’ve been incredible this year,” Plack said. “They follow in a long line of outside linebackers who are long, athletic and physical. Those guys are highly intelligent, able to shed blocks, and get after the quarterback so well. They enjoy their craft and have been coached up very well.”
Offensively, Peters Township, which averages a Class 5A-best 40 points a game, has been led by sophomore quarterback Nolan DiLucia. The first-year starter has completed 63% of his passes for 2,356 yards and 23 touchdowns while adding 339 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. DiLucia has done an excellent job of spreading the ball around to his receivers, as five of them have at least 20 receptions. Senior Carter Shanafelt, one of the WPIAL’s most versatile players, leads the team with 34 catches and 126 points, a number that includes 10 touchdowns, 4 field goals and 54 extra points. Senior running backs Vinny Sarcone (554 yards, 20 touchdowns) and Preston Blair (520, nine touchdowns) headline the ground game.
Pine-Richland has the No. 2 scoring defense in the class, allowing only 13.9 points per game. The Rams have been especially good over the past month, giving up a total of 15 points in four games. Junior linebacker Sam Heckert has collected a team-high 76 tackles and junior lineman Dustin Edwards leads the way with 5.5 sacks.
The title game features an excellent coaching matchup between LeDonne and Plack. LeDonne has captured two WPIAL titles and two PIAA titles, pulling off the championship double at Penn Hills in 2018 and at Pine-Richland in his first season a year ago. Plack is still waiting to win his first WPIAL or PIAA crown, but what he has done in eight seasons at Peters Township has been nothing short of remarkable. Before Plack arrived in 2016, the Indians had only one playoff win and two winning seasons the previous 21 years. But under Plack, the Indians are 66-25, have reached the playoffs six times, and have won four conference titles.
What’s left for Plack and the Indians now is winning the school’s first WPIAL title, something they could get their hands on Saturday.
“It would be the next step,” Plack said. “It would be awesome. That’s why we do this starting in January. All the time we put into this, it would mean a lot to the program and the kids, and it would mean a lot to the kids that graduated.”