East Allegheny eyes another playoff chance

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Sunday, August 15, 2021 | 6:01 AM


Not long ago at East Allegheny, the concept of regularly playing football in the postseason was but a dream.

It rarely happened.

Anymore, though, just making it there isn’t enough.

“We’ve gotten the program to where we’re getting to the playoffs. We even won a game (in 2017),” coach Dom Pecora said. “But we’ve been trying to win there consistently. We’ve been trying to take the next step.”

Taking a step up to Class 3A last season, the Wildcats were eliminated in resounding fashion in the quarterfinals by eventual PIAA champion Central Valley, 56-7. In spite of it, they enter this season seeking their sixth consecutive WPIAL playoff appearance.

“This group has got to finish it out,” Pecora said. “This will be another group — the second group — that would make it all four years.

“It started in junior high with the group that included TJ Banks.”

Banks, then a high school senior voted to the 2017 Trib 25 all-star team, is a redshirt junior tight end at West Virginia. Pecora is convinced EA’s program began to ascend with the arrival of the now-6-foot-5, 245-pound Banks.

“We’ve won one playoff game with him here and we want more consistency without him here,” Pecora said.

It’s been a journey of ups-and-downs for Pecora, entering his ninth season as coach at East Allegheny.

“It was certainly a challenge, and still is,” he said. “In the beginning, I had a hard time getting guys to practice. We just needed to get some consistency out of the guys who came out. We’ve had talented kids walk away. The ones that stayed have made a difference. Our team behavior is so much better in year nine than in year one.”

If East Allegheny is going to keep its playoff appearance streak alive, the Wildcats will do it without record-setting quarterback Johnny DiNapoli, who transferred to Elizabeth Forward.

As a freshman in 2019, DiNapoli passed for 1,728 yards, setting what is believed to be a WPIAL freshman record. He attended East Allegheny the past two seasons, but he previously lived in the Elizabeth Forward district.

DiNapoli last season as a sophomore threw for 460 yards while missing time with an injury in a regular season already shortened by the pandemic.

Pecora prefers to focus on his current team.

“I have a core group of five guys who mean a lot to me,” he said. “They all have started at least one way through the years.”

All seniors, they are lineman Robert Booker-Washington, wide receiver/cornerback Praishaun Gainer, running backs/linebackers Mekhi Manor and Mekai Mitchell and wide receiver/safety Mike Smith, who, Pecora said, is threatening to set a school record for career receptions.

Smith wound up leading the Wildcats in passing yards a year ago while subbing for DiNapoli, but sophomore Mike Cahill, who saw some action as a freshman, likely will be the starter at quarterback this season.

“He’s the leader in the clubhouse,” Pecora said of Cahill.

Traditionally a Class 2A program, Pecora said the move to 3A doesn’t concern him. He said the two classifications in many ways are similar.

The biggest difference in 3A, he said, is with the talent and depth level of the top teams versus those in 2A.

“But, there’s nobody on the schedule,” he said, “that’s an easy win.”

East Allegheny

Coach: Dom Pecora

2020 record: 5-2, 3-1 in Class 3A Allegheny Seven Conference

All-time record: 316-249-23

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

9.3 at Serra Catholic, 7

9.10 at Steel Valley, 7

9.17 Burrell*, 7

9.24 at North Catholic*, 7

10.1 Deer Lakes*, 7

10.8 at Freeport*, 7

10.15 Derry*, 7

10-22 Valley*, 7

10.29 Brownsville, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Michael Smith

25-46, 398 yards, 3 TDs

Receiving: Michael Smith

8-245, 3 TDs

Rushing: John DiNapoli#

21-148, 1 TDs

#Transferred to Elizabeth Forward

FAST FACTS

• East Allegheny has reached the WPIAL playoffs the past five seasons, the most years in succession in the school’s history.

• Since 2016, EA is a combined 32-19 during the regular season. The Wildcats are 1-5 in WPIAL playoff games.

• Senior Praishaun Gainer returns as the leading pass-catcher from last season, when he tied Amaryeh Lucky with 12 receptions, two going for touchdowns.

• Senior Mike Smith, who played quarterback and receiver last season, led East Allegheny in scoring with six touchdowns for 36 points.

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