Alumni from Leechburg’s last playoff trip in 1988 following Blue Devils’ success

Wednesday, October 27, 2021 | 1:06 PM

The longest WPIAL football playoff drought was extinguished Friday night with Leechburg’s decisive, 66-6 rout over Imani Christian.

The Blue Devils will be in the WPIAL Class A playoffs for the first time since 1988, when Leechburg finished in second place in the Eastern Conference and traveled to Lawrence County, where eventual WPIAL champion Wilmington handed the Blue Devils a 35-0 loss.

Billions of gallons of Kiskiminetas River water have passed under the Leechburg Veterans Bridge since the last playoff run. Ronald Reagan was in the final months of his presidency, and the Valley News Dispatch was owned by Gannett Publishing. People who congratulated the Blue Devils over the weekend on Facebook and Twitter couldn’t do it back then. Those platforms didn’t exist. Email was in its infancy.

But those who were part of Leechburg’s 1988 team are happy for today’s Blue Devils.

“I’ve been following them the past couple of years. They really have some good athletes,” said Eric Zanotto, an outside linebacker in 1988.

“I’m definitely following this team through social media and keeping up with what they’re doing,” said former running back Jason DeCroo, now living in Fairfax County, Va. “I go on Facebook and can tell the community’s behind them and the alumni is behind them, too.”

Leechburg had been playing up in classification, but after a respectable 4-4-2 season in 1987, the school district decided to drop to Class A. The move paid dividends as the Blue Devils landed in the Eastern Conference and won the opener with a 6-0 victory over Pine-Richland (yes, P-R was a Class A school then).

Leechburg finished with a 6-2 conference mark, 7-3 overall.

“When we were in sixth grade, we had a Junior Olympics competition,” Zanotto recalled. “Our phys ed teacher, Glenn Skura, said if we stayed together, we’d have a helluva team. We played in seventh grade and all the way through.”

For the better part of 30 years, Leechburg was often a playoff contender in multiple sports.

“That’s a tribute to the teams we had before us,” DeCroo said. “You could say we had a chip on our shoulders from ‘81 through ’89 from Little League baseball, Lower Burrell Flyers (youth) football, CYO basketball all the way through high school. We had some great athletes like Chad Logero and John Blumer.”

Fast forward to the present where second-year coach Randy Walters knew he had the makings of a strong team.

“We didn’t get together until July 1 (2020) because of covid,” Walters said. “We had the kids around us. We just had to put the defense and the lines together.”

The offense really has come together, with the Blue Devils scoring more than 60 points four times in the last 11 games.

But Walters and the team wants to keep going starting Friday at Greensburg Central Catholic, where the winner takes hold of third place in the conference.

“We are not satisfied just making the playoffs. We have plenty of work to do,” the coach said. “I think we have the toughest conference in the state, no offense to the others.”

Braylan Lovelace had an incredible night Friday, scoring seven touchdowns against Imani.

But lingering in the back of the Blue Devils’ minds was last year’s 27-0 halftime lead against Imani that melted into a 28-27 loss.

“Out defensive coach (JohnAllen) Snyder wrote 27-0 on the board to remind us,” Lovelace said. “It was just a crazy night. Our line did their thing, or I wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”

Friday’s game will determine playoff seeding.

“We have to play the best game we’ve played all year and get the best playoff spot we can,” Lovelace said.

Football playoff seeding is something Leechburg hasn’t worried about for 33 years. In ’88, Leechburg was upset 3-0 by Riverview in the regular-season finale, resulting in the long ride to Wilmington.

Zanotto is now a police officer in Washington Township and lives in Parks Township. His son, Brett, was a standout at Franklin Regional and Duquesne. DeCroo is an IT specialist for the public schools system in Fairfax County, Va.


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