As football season begins with heat week, Central Catholic starts to lay foundation

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Monday, August 7, 2023 | 11:35 PM


Central Catholic’s new football coach, Ryan Lehmeier, and his predecessor, Terry Totten, were both on the practice field Monday when the Vikings started heat acclimation.

But there was no coaching controversy brewing.

“I have a really good relationship with Terry,” Lehmeier said. “He’s probably the best resource I possibly could have.”

In fact, Lehmeier laughed about how he played a part in Totten’s first career coaching win at Central Catholic. Lehmeier was the starting quarterback at North Hills in 2005, and the team’s season opener was against Totten’s Vikings.

“He beat us 21-20,” said Lehmeier, with the disappointment still obvious in his voice. “It’s kind of crazy how things worked out.”

But for the most part, Monday wasn’t a day for reminiscing. Instead, the new coaching staff started laying groundwork for the future.

Lehmeier, a former assistant coach at Seneca Valley and Pine-Richland, quickly put his fingerprints on the team’s first official workout. He prefers to schedule practice drills to the minute, an approach meant to eliminate downtime and keep teenage attention spans engaged.

The idea got good reviews.

“This is much more college-styled,” senior Anthony Speca said. “We had a practice schedule and a clock and everything. We didn’t have that before.”

The biggest different was “the efficiency of practice,” senior Cole Sullivan said. “There was no standing around. Everything is quick on the ball. Fast paced. No wasted movements.”

Monday was the first day of heat acclimation for high school football teams in the PIAA. Each player must complete five heat days before beginning full-contact practices as teams open camp next week.

Lehmeier had the Vikings on their turf practice field in Oakland from 10 a.m. to noon.

“Our practices are down to the minute,” he said. “We go in five- or 10-minute segments. Once that segment is over, it’s on to something else. We keep it moving. They’re there (at the school) for four hours, and they only had 14 minutes of downtime.”

Lehmeier inherited a powerhouse program that is favored to reach the WPIAL finals for a fifth year in a row. The team has an abundance of players — 130 on the roster — and also an abundance of talent. Every class from senior to freshman has athletes with Division I college options.

Among the seniors alone, Speca is committed to Penn State, and Sullivan is headed to Michigan. Wide receiver Peter Gonzales is also Penn State bound, and defensive end Ty Yuhas is committed to Pitt. Lehmeier said there’s so much individual talent that not everyone can be the star every game, which is a point he has made in practice.

“The No. 1 thing that we preach is the team, the team, the team,” he said. “We talk a lot about how there’s one ball and it goes around. If everyone does their job and we play long into the season, then everyone is going to eat.”

All that talent also draws critics.

As the largest private school in WPIAL football, Central Catholic’s success is known to draw the ire of some public school rivals. Lehmeier was on the other side for years, first as a player and later as an assistant coach.

“It’s a discussion, and I think everybody has a side,” said Lehmeier, who’d prefer to leave that discussion to others. “I have a perspective from both sides. The rules are the rules, and we abide by them. Central Catholic is above board, and everything’s done the right way.”

He also acknowledged that the public vs. private debate likely isn’t going away.

“Everybody wants to talk about that,” he said. “This is a great opportunity here at Central, and I’m excited to be their coach.”

Totten resigned in December after winning six WPIAL titles and two state championships in 18 years. The Vikings have reached the WPIAL finals in nine of the past 10 seasons.

Lehmeier was hired in January, taking a job that comes with pressure to succeed right away. He’s among 25 new head coaches in the WPIAL and City League this season.

“I think there’s pressure any time there are high expectations, and the expectations here are high,” Lehmeier said. “We’re not going to run away from those, and we’re not going to dance around it. Winning is very important.”

Lehmeier surrounded himself with some familiar faces on his coaching staff. The offensive line coach is Tim Sasson, who traveled with Lehmeier from Pine-Richland to Seneca Valley and now Central Catholic. Sasson is one of four former Pine-Richland assistants on the staff.

“That continuity amongst us has been really good to make the transition even more seamless for the players,” Lehmeier said.

A coaching change can be a tough situation for any senior, but Sullivan and Speca said their class bought in.

“We really embraced it as a group,” Sullivan said. “It just shows how much we believe in the new coaches here and how much we’re buying into what they’re saying. I think it also has to do with how tight our group is. We were going to show up and give our best no matter who the coach was.”

After one official practice, the two Big Ten-bound linebackers felt optimistic about their final summer camp at Central.

“The energy is different here,” Speca said. “I love the coaches, practice is super detailed, and everybody is working really hard. It was a great ‘last’ first day of heat acc.”

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 charlan@triblive.com.

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