The stingiest defense in the WPIAL faced its stiffest challenge of the season Saturday.
What followed was an effort so impressive that it helped earn the team its first WPIAL title.
Behind a dominant defensive performance and an excellent game from its sophomore quarterback, No. 1 Peters Township rolled to its first WPIAL title by beating defending WPIAL and PIAA champion Pine-Richland, 43-17, in the Class 5A final at Norwin High School.
A Peters Township defense that had given up only 83 points over its 12 previous games shut down Pine-Richland (9-4) and its wildcat offense. Pine-Richland produced only 44 yards on 39 offensive plays through three quarters and didn’t score its first touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter. Peters Township (13-0) has won all of its games by double digits.
“It’s week in and week out,” said Peters Township coach T.J. Plack, whose team lost in the final in 2019 and 2020. “The coaches love it. They pride themselves in [limiting opposing offenses], and our kids thrive off of it. They’re just a special unit, special kids. And they’re very enthusiastic to play defense.”
Peters Township limited Pine-Richland to 151 total yards, including just 13 rushing yards on 27 attempts. Wildcat quarterback Ethan Pillar, who entered the game with 1,454 yards and 22 touchdowns, was held to 27 yards on 15 carries and was kept out of the end zone. Pine-Richland quarterbacks were picked off twice, and the Rams were 0 for 13 on third-down conversions.
“Just how fast and explosive they were,” Pine-Richland coach Jon LeDonne said when asked what impressed him about the Peters Township defense. “They were swarming to the ball. We thought we had some gaps, and those gaps closed pretty quickly.”
Darius McMillon and Justin Tornatore collected interceptions for Peters Township. Mickey Vaccarello registered a sack, and Eliot Schratz notched a team-best 7½ tackles.
“I hope after that we proved to everyone that we’re the real deal,” said Vaccarello, a junior linebacker with offers from Boston College and Syracuse.
Meanwhile, sophomore Nolan DiLucia, the team’s first-year starting quarterback, was very good in leading the Peters Township offense. DiLucia completed 14-of-25 passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns while adding 81 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. DiLucia did throw two interceptions, both of which were picked off by Pine-Richland’s Tanner Cunningham.
“He’s one of those guys,” Plack said of DiLucia. “He’s a dude. I know people always throw G.O.A.T. around a lot. Dude they throw around a lot also. And he is a dude. He is a guy.”
Added DiLucia, “I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a little kid. It’s indescribable. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.”
DiLucia and the Peters Township offense came alive in the second quarter following a first quarter that saw Pine-Richland take a 3-2 lead. Pine-Richland kicker Grant Argiro provided the game’s first points after booting a 48-yard field goal, and Peters Township countered with two points of its own when a snap on a Pine-Richland punt went through Argiro’s hands and out of the back of the end zone.
All of DiLucia’s passing touchdowns came in the second quarter. DiLucia connected with Vaccarello for a 13-yard score on the second play of the quarter, and the Indians tacked on two more touchdowns in the final 1:33 of the half — DiLucia threw a 32-yard touchdown to Ethan Wertman and a 13-yard scoring strike to Carter Shanafelt. Those scores gave Peters Township a commanding 23-3 advantage.
“We got all the momentum,” Vaccarello said. “We knew we could outplay them. They’re a great team, but we knew we had them after that.”
The Indians most certainly did have them, and it showed in the third quarter when they extended their lead to 36-3 via touchdown runs by Vinny Sarcone (33 yards) and Preston Blair (63 yards).
Pine-Richland finally scored its first touchdown with 7:04 left in the game when Kanan Huffman found Vasilios Balouris for a 48-yard score. After DiLucia responded with a 39-yard touchdown run, Huffman connected with Bryce O’Brien for a 30-yard score with 2:45 left. Huffman, a senior, played the second half in place of freshman Aaron “Oobi” Strader, who exited the game late in the first half after injuring his ankle. Huffman finished 11 of 26 for 138 yards.
Peters Township rolled up 482 yards of offense, including 298 on the ground. Sarcone ran for 94 yards on 12 carries and Blair 94 yards on nine carries.
But on this day, it was the play of the Peters Township defense that was the biggest story.
Afterward, Vaccarello was asked how he would grade his team’s defensive performance.
“I’d say B-plus or A-minus,” he said. “We let up some touchdowns at the end, but that’s all right.”