After near misses, North Catholic focused reaching championship game

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Sunday, August 18, 2019 | 11:41 AM


When you come as close to playing for a championship as North Catholic football has only to see it slip away, it’s hard not to look back at the small moments that swayed the game.

Two years ago, it was a tight, 19-14 loss to Washington in the Class 2A semifinals. Last year, North Catholic saw Derry score 21 points in the fourth quarter for a 36-29 comeback win in the Class 3A semifinals.

With those games in the rear-view mirror, the focus has become making sure every “T” is crossed and every “I” is dotted in preparation for trying to get over the hump and make it to Heinz Field.

“We have an open line of communication, and the kids know that it can be the smallest thing that keeps us out of that championship game,” North Catholic coach Pat O’Shea said.

“During the offseason we’ve said that we need to pay super close attention to the details of the game of football. The details lie within the fundamentals of the game. If you don’t turn the ball over, tackle on defense, and put the time and effort into special teams … those three things typically equate to wins. If any one of those break down, it could keep us from our ultimate goal of getting past the semifinals and into a championship game.”

To go along with being diligent in the details, North Catholic also has talent in spades.

That starts with senior quarterback Zack Rocco, who enters his third season as the starter. Rocco, a lefty, has thrown for nearly 2,000 yards each of the last two seasons and had 26 touchdown passes last year.

O’Shea isn’t one to get bogged down in stats and appreciates the leadership capabilities of Rocco and his winning mentality.

“When people look at what Zack has done in terms of statistics, I look at wins,” O’Shea said. “He’s guided us to two 10-win seasons and two semifinals appearances.”

O’Shea feels he has some good depth at quarterback behind Rocco in sophomores Joey Prentice and Jalen Klemm, who transferred in from California last winter. That makes him more comfortable playing Rocco on defense, and he expects him to slot in at either inside or outside linebacker. Rocco also has taken some snaps at tight end during seven-on-seven scrimmages this summer, which could add another element to an offense that averaged nearly 38 points last season.

“The last couple of years Zach’s been very unselfish and his family has too, because we decided not to use Zack on defense because we didn’t have an experienced backup quarterback,” O’Shea said. “I think people are going to see that Zack isn’t just a really good quarterback, but a really good defensive player, as well.

“As we go through the season, and we feel like there’s an opportunity to let one of these younger quarterbacks get experience, Zach is an unbelievable tight end. I think Zach is Division I tight end myself, as well as being a great quarterback, but we’ll let the film speak for itself once we get to that point of the season.”

A notable absence from the roster is standout middle linebacker and Michigan commit Nikhai Hill-Green, who transferred to St. Frances Academy in Baltimore for his senior year. O’Shea feels they have the athletes to fill the void left by Hill-Green, starting with junior Mathias Benson.

Benson was a starter last year alongside Hill-Green.

“You always wish kids the very best. Nikhai moved on and we moved on,” O’Shea said. “Mathias is a very good football player. His dad played at Pitt and with the New York Jets. Some of the attention that went to Nikhai last year, should have probably been given to Mathias as well. He’s taken over that leadership role, and he went through all last season playing at a high level.”

The Trojans graduated top receiver Tyree Brown, but return starter Nick Maher, who is slated to fill Brown’s role. Leading rusher Cameron Branch also graduated, but O’Shea said he has a stable of players vying for time as the featured running back.

North Catholic is in the Big East Conference for the second consecutive year where it split the conference crown with Derry and Elizabeth Forward. Freeport was the other team to make it to the playoffs.

O’Shea lauded the conference for its tough, blue-collar nature and expects the same type of football again.

Derry was the only team to beat the North Catholic last year, and did it twice.

“After we lost to (Derry) in the semifinals I said to our kids as heartbreaking as it was you had to give to so much credit to their kids, because they blue-collared us,” O’Shea said. “It was a fight, and in the end they won it. They got the knockout and we didn’t. I expect them to be tough again.”

Schedule

Coach: Pat O’Shea

2018 record: 10-2, 7-1

All-time record: 438-306-32

Date, Opponent, Time

8.30, Burrell*, 7

9.6, at Freeport*, 7

9.13, Central Valley+, 7

9.20, Derry*+, 7

9.27, at Mt. Pleasant*, 7

10.4, Elizabeth Forward*+, 7

10.11, at Uniontown*, 7

10.18, at Yough*, 7

10.25, Deer Lakes*+, 7

*Class 3A Big East Conference game

+At Mars

Statistical leaders

Passing: Zack Rocco

118-184, 1,964 yards, 26 TDs

Receiving: Tyree Brown*

36-757 yards, 8 TDs

Rushing: Cameron Branch*

98-684 yards, 6 TDs

*Graduated

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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