Big 33 Football Classic goes ‘full-speed ahead,’ announces roster with 19 WPIAL players

Thursday, February 18, 2021 | 2:14 PM

The weather will be perfect for the Big 33 Football Classic, predicts Garry Cathell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association.

Sure, call him an optimist.

But his positive thinking doesn’t end there. Cathell also envisions the all-star game surging back to action this spring with four- and five-star recruits on the field and some fans in the stands. Kickoff is 1 p.m. May 31 at Central Dauphin’s Landis Field near Harrisburg.

“We’re planning on full-speed ahead,” Cathell said Thursday as the PSFCA announced a Pennsylvania roster that included 19 WPIAL players.

“We feel pretty excited about having the game,” he added. “It was very, very important to us that we had a physical game this year. It’s going to go unless something really, really crazy happens.”

Pennsylvania will face an all-star team from Maryland, the Keystone State’s opponent since 2013.

The PSFCA also intends to hold two East-West games this spring, one for big-school players and another for small schools. Those rosters are expected to be announced Monday. Organizers canceled last year’s all-star games in the early months of the pandemic and honored players with a virtual event instead.

This year, Cathell said confidently, they’ll return to the field.

“The worst-case scenario would be to have a covid game, much like the (high school) games that were played this fall, with a limited amount of participants allowed in facilities,” he said. “The best-case scenario would be the state has loosened up and we’re allowed to put more and more of our participants into the game.”

The PSFCA announced a 38-player Pennsylvania roster Thursday. Among them were four players from Pine-Richland (Luke Miller, Harrison Hayes, Cole Spencer, Eli Jochem), three from Central Catholic (Bralen Henderson, Eddy Tillman, Grant Cullen) and two each from Central Valley (Stephon Hall, Myles Walker) and Peters Township (Donovan McMillon, Corban Hondru).

Joining them from the WPIAL are North Allegheny’s Khalil Dinkins, Montour’s Cam McLaurin, Union’s Aaron Gunn, Beaver Falls’ Josh Hough, Elizabeth Forward’s Chase Whatton, Connellsville’s Ky’Ron Craggette, Canon-McMillon’s Connor McMahon and Thomas Jefferson’s Preston Zandier.

Statewide, the headliner was five-star recruit Nolan Rucci of Warwick, a 6-foot-8, 295-pound offensive lineman committed to Wisconsin. McMillon, a four-star Florida recruit, also boosts the game’s appeal for college fans. Imhotep Charter defensive lineman Taleeq Robbins is headed to Mississippi.

Pitt and Penn State each have three recruits on the roster.

“It’s always nice playing against some of the top guys from the area,” said Walker, an Akron recruit who helped Central Valley win WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A titles. “That’s nice to compete against the best of the best around here.”

The Pennsylvania players took part in an online event Thursday announcing the roster. They shared their enthusiasm for playing an the event that counts Joe Namath, Tony Dorsett, Joe Montana, Ben Roethlisberger and Darrelle Revis among its star-studded list of former players.

The Big 33 started in 1959 by matching Pennsylvania players against a national all-star team. Pennsylvania’s opponent has changed often over the years and at times included teams from Texas and Ohio.

The event traditionally was played later in the summer, but as the game lost top recruits to early college enrollment, organizers in 2019 moved the game to Memorial Day.

Cathell said he’s seen a difference.

“I really like the fact that we are getting some really nice players committed to playing in the game,” he said. “With a Memorial Day start, technically our kids are still high school students. … When we had the game that second week of June, a lot of the kids would have had to report.”

He recalled four years ago, when 15 Pennsylvania players turned down an invitation because of college obligations. More players seem to embrace this earlier date, he said.

“May is a great time,” said Hayes, a Pine-Richland lineman who won WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A titles. “I’ll be heading down to Liberty in mid-June, right after I graduate. So, actually, it’s the perfect time for me.”

Pennsylvania roster


Pos., Player, High school, College

QB, Cole Spencer, Pine-Richland, Penn (wrestling)

QB, Evan Clark, Manheim Township, Penn State

RB, Josh Hough, Beaver Falls, Syracuse

RB, Eddy Tillman, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, undecided

RB, Ky’Ron Craggette, Connellsville, Notre Dame College

TE, Cade Rooney, St. Joseph’s Prep, Bucknell

TE, Matt Bowes, LaSalle College, Bloomsburg

WR, Malik Cooper, St. Joseph’s Prep, Temple

WR, Eli Jochem, Pine-Richland, Indiana

WR, Judah Tomb, Central York, St. Francis

WR, Caleb Schmitz, Warwick, Cincinnati

OL, Aaron Gunn, Union, Louisville

OL, Connor McMahon, Canon-McMillan, Navy

OL, Harrison Hayes, Pine-Richland, Liberty

OL, Cam McLaurin, Montour, Duquesne

OL, Mike Gecik, Delaware Valley, Albany

OL, Grant Cullen, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, undecided

OL, Nolan Rucci, Warwick, Wisconsin

LS, Brock Welsh, Middletown, undecided


Pos., Player, High school, College

DT, Nick Yagodich, St. Joseph’s Prep, Harvard

DT, Taleeq Robbins, Imhotep Charter, Mississippi

DT, Amara Yobouet, Philadelphia Northeast, Albany

DE, Cam’Ron Stewart, Governor Mifflin, Rutgers

DE, Chase Whatton, Elizabeth Forward, Bowling Green

DE, Bralen Henderson, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Ohio

LB, Balansama Kamara, Philadelphia Central, Temple

LB, Corban Hondru, Peters Township, Miami (Ohio)

LB, Khalil Dinkins, North Allegheny, Penn State

LB, Luke Miller, Pine-Richland, Kent State

DB, Javon McIntyre, Imhotep Charter, Pitt

DB, Julian Talley, St. Joseph’s Prep, Penn

DB, Stephon Hall, Central Valley, Pitt

DB, Donovan McMillon, Peters Township, Florida

DB, Shafeek Smith, Imhotep Charter, Towson

ATH, Myles Walker, Central Valley, Akron

ATH, Preston Zandier, Thomas Jefferson, Youngstown State

K, Mitchel Groh, Dallastown, Penn State

K, Samuel Hershey, JP McCaskey, undecided

Head coach

Jack Young, Athens

Assistant coaches

Mike Collodi, Elizabeth Forward

Jon DeFoe, Bermudian Springs

Martin Tobias, Penns Valley

Brandon Phillian, Wilmington

Calvin Everett, Harrisburg

John Donnelly, Central Bucks East

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

More High School Football

Westmoreland high school notebook: Football rivalry games put on hold this season
Girls flag football catching on at Shaler
Peters Township linebacker Mickey Vaccarello commits to Stanford
WPIAL notebook: Girls flag football tops 100-team threshold, on road to being PIAA sport
WPIAL to hold hearings for 2 Aliquippa football transfers, approves 3 others