Central Catholic ‘not awestruck’ by nationally ranked St. Joseph’s Prep

Friday, November 29, 2019 | 5:00 AM

National rankings list St. Joseph’s Prep as one of the best high school football teams not only in Pennsylvania but in the entire country.

The team’s roster features Marvin Harrison Jr. and Jeremiah Trotter Jr., sons of former NFL stars. Its schedule started with games against powerhouse programs in Florida, Georgia and Washington D.C.

That’s enough hype to stir anxiety in an opponent.

“But our kids are not awestruck by who they are or what they’ve done or who they’ve played,” Central Catholic defensive coordinator Dave Fleming said. “Our kids are not fazed by their names. Not one bit. They’re not fazed by who those kids are. They’re just as old as they are. But at the same time, they recognize the task.”

WPIAL champion Central Catholic (12-1) plays St. Joseph’s Prep (9-2) in a PIAA Class 6A semifinal at 1 p.m. Saturday at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona. The Philadelphia Catholic League team is the defending state champion and has won five titles since 2013.

“We have to play a very good football team,” Central Catholic coach Terry Totten said. “We’re prepared to put up a very good fight.”

This would have been a marquee championship matchup two years ago, until the PIAA redrew the Class 6A bracket and put the WPIAL and District 12 on the same side. Now, the state’s two strongest districts meet in the semifinals.

Central Catholic is ranked second in the state.

“We have the same mindset that we have every single week,” Fleming said. “We’re going to go in there with the expectation that we’re going to fight for 48 minutes.”

The two schools have some recent history.

They met head-to-head in the 2013 and 2016 state championships and St. Joseph’s Prep won both. The Hawks won 35-10 the first time, and 42-7 in the 2016 rematch with Georgia star D’Andre Swift in the backfield.

This year’s Prep team shares some traits with those two.

“It’s a similar St. Joe’s Prep team,” Fleming said. “They’re big up front. They have good running backs. They’ve got guys that can play football at a high level all over the place.”

USA Today ranks the Hawks at No. 22 nationally. They started their regular season with losses to Marietta, Ga., and ninth-ranked IMG Academy.

“I think they’ve gotten better (since 2016), minus D’Andre Swift,” Totten said. “I think overall as a football program they’ve taken it up to a Top 20 program in this country.”

However, St. Joseph’s Prep might play Saturday without its Ohio State-bound quarterback. Kyle McCord is a 2,399-yard passer with 31 touchdowns but the junior sat out the past two games with an apparent knee injury.

Rivals ranks McCord as the second-best, pro-style quarterback recruit nationally in the 2021 class. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound passer threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns last season to defeat Pine-Richland, 37-0, in a state semifinal.

In McCord’s place, the Hawks have used speedy wide receiver Malik Cooper as a wildcat quarterback. In two starts, Cooper passed for only 17 and 58 yards as the team relied heavily on its offensive line and running game.

Cooper rushed for 51 yards on four carries last week.

“The kid can fly,” Fleming said. “Absolutely fly.”

Combined, St. Joseph’s Prep rushed for 558 yards on 80 carries the past two weeks. Prep defeated Northeast, 43-26, in the District 12 finals Nov. 16 and opened the PIAA playoffs with a 45-24 victory over Nazareth last week.

“They’re still very dangerous because the kid they brought in is a 4.4 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) kid,” Totten said. “But he can still throw it. With Marvin Harrison on the outside, he just has to throw the ball up to him and you’ve got big problems.”

Harrison is the team’s leading receiver with 37 catches for 853 yards and 13 touchdowns. The junior had six receptions for 222 yards and four touchdowns in McCord’s last start at quarterback, but he’s had only one catch since his injury.

Cooper will run but the ground game starts with running back Kolbe Burrell. The 5-8, 185-pound senior rushed for 217 yards against Northeast and 109 against Nazareth, giving him 1,097 yards and 14 touchdowns for the season. Burrell is committed to Buffalo.

He’s one of the multiple Division I recruits on St. Joseph’s roster. Among them, Trotter is a linebacker committed to Clemson and Harrison is committed to Ohio State.

“We can’t allow big plays by them, we have to make a few on offense and we have to protect the football,” Totten said. “Nothing changes. It’s just that a team like that can accentuate your mistakes.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .


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