After turnaround season, Blackhawk wants more
Saturday, August 17, 2019 | 11:10 AM
What the Blackhawk football team was able to accomplish last season was remarkable. But now the Cougars are ready to take the next step.
After winning two games in 2017, Blackhawk rattled off a 10-2 record in 2018 and made an appearance in the WPIAL Class 4A semifinals, snapping a five-year playoff drought.
“The weight room was a focal point from Day 1, just building that culture that we compete in everything that we do,” said second-year coach Zach Hayward, a 2009 Blackhawk grad. “That competitiveness carried over to in-season and guys pushed themselves, not only on Friday nights, but Monday through Thursday.”
Did they ever. The Cougars’ only two losses came to the Class 4A finalists, South Fayette and Thomas Jefferson, which eliminated Blackhawk from the postseason. The Cougars beat West Mifflin in the quarterfinals for their first playoff win since 2008.
“When you play hard, the ball will bounce your way,” Hayward said. “The guys bought into what the coaching staff was preaching to them, and it was a great way to start off a new culture.”
Despite changes on both sides of the ball, Hayward will not try to reinvent the wheel in his second season. Blackhawk allowed only 15 points per game in 2018 and was the only district team to hold Class 4A champion South Fayette to under 28 points.
“Defense has always been something that Blackhawk’s been known for, and that’s something that we’re going to continue to build off of,” Hayward said, crediting defensive coordinator Ryan Levinger. “We’ll have a little bit more balance, but defense is definitely the name of the game for us.”
Offensively, however, the quarterback position needs to be filled, as Chance Liptak graduated. The battle is between junior Logan Cailor, who attempted seven passes last season, and sophomore Carson Davidson, who was injured in 2018.
“They’re both young and able to feed off one another,” Hayward said. “They’ll try to do what Chance did in some of those games. Both of those guys are a little more mobile, so we may have more quarterback runs.”
Hayward admits he will ultimately go with what works under center and, if a starter emerges, the other will move to a skill position.
If it is the 6-foot-2 Cailor who becomes a pass catcher, he would add to what may be one of the WPIAL’s biggest receiving groups. Seniors James Darno and Ryan Heckathorn are 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4, respectively.
But Blackhawk primarily plans on keeping the ball on the ground with a pair of talented tailbacks. Senior Marques Watson-Trent who, despite missing the final four games of 2018 with mononucleosis, ran for 649 yards and nine touchdowns. He has several college offers, including Navy.
“He brings out the best in our team,” Hayward said. “He’s a team leader, and he’s not all about himself. He’s hungry. Every time that we talk, he mentions playing at Heinz Field. That’s his dream, to get there and play for a WPIAL championship.”
Watson-Trent will be complimented by classmate Josh Butcher, who rushed for 636 yards and eight scores in 2018.
Who blocks for that tandem is in some question. Blackhawk lost four of its five starters on the offensive line; the only returner is senior Kail Davidson.
“We lost a lot up front, I don’t think that’s a secret,” Hayward said. “We’ll be young, but I think that’s not a bad thing. It gives us a chance to try out new formations and new blocking schemes. We’re a little bit more mobile up front than we were last year.”
Defensively, the linebacker group should be a major strength. Kail Davidson is a three-year starter, Ryan Heckathorn was a unanimous all-conference selection a year ago, and reliable Mike Culler takes over a starting position. Niko Beres, a senior transfer from Florida, will see time.
Darno, who had four interceptions in 2018, is joined in the secondary by Watson-Trent and Carson Davidson, as well as juniors Josh Hathaway and Jabari Baldwin. Tyler Fetisin, a strong basketball player, has joined the football program and will see time at defensive back, as will Carson Heckathorn.
”We’re excited with these young skill positions we have,” Hayward said. “These guys have learned from the guys last year. They might be a little inexperienced, but they’re very athletic.”
Vince Gratteri returns on the defensive line, while Hayward looks forward to the potential of junior Ali Alhabib. Seniors Tom Smith and Matt Randza, as well as sophomore Hayden Davis, will factor in.
If Blackhawk’s goal of making it to Heinz Field is to come to fruition, it needs its inexperienced players to fill major voids. It also needs find a way to navigate through a difficult Northwest 8 Conference. Hayward highlights South Fayette, Montour and New Castle as its toughest opponents, but adds that anyone can make a run.
“South Fayette and Thomas Jefferson, those are the teams that got us last year,” Hayward said. “Those are the programs we’re shooting for our program to be like. Hopefully, we’re able to play Thomas Jefferson. They’re not on our schedule, but hopefully we run into them at some time, hopefully at Heinz Field.”
Coach: Zack Hayward
2018 record: 10-2, 6-1
All-time record: 311-176-8
Date, Opponent, Time
8.23, Central Valley, 7
8.30, at Knoch*, 7
9.6, Highlands*, 7
9.13, at Ambridge*, 7
9.20, Montour*, 7
9.27, South Fayette*, 7
10.4, at New Castle*, 7
10.11, at Indiana, 7
10.18, Beaver Falls, 7
10.25, at Beaver*, 7:30
*Class 4A Northwest 8 Conference game
Passing: Chance Liptak*
48-95, 868 yards, 11 TDs
Receiving: James Darno
13-218 yards, 3 TDs
Rushing: Kenny Gawley*
164-805 yards, 3 TDs