Even without LeDonne in attendance, Penn Hills, Pine-Richland excited for clash of champions

Wednesday, August 21, 2019 | 6:39 PM

Jon LeDonne won’t take a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains or listen to some Smokey Robinson on his free Friday night.

He probably will stay at home and watch his Penn Hills football team play Pine-Richland online or on his television. It’s a marquee matchup between the defending WPIAL Class 6A and 5A champions.

Kickoff is 7 p.m.

LeDonne lives in the Pine-Richland district not far from the Rams’ stadium, but he will be serving a WPIAL-mandated one-game suspension for the smoke-grenade cloud his players made before last year’s championship game.

“When I scheduled (Pine-Richland) I said, ‘Hey, I get to coach in my backyard, amongst some of the best coaches in the game,’” said LeDonne, whose son plays youth football for Pine-Richland. “It’s a little disappointing not to be out there.”

Regardless, LeDonne plans to have his Penn Hills players over to his house for a pregame dinner.

“Maybe we’ll give them a smoking departure,” he said with a laugh.

This is the fourth season WPIAL teams are able to trade their second scrimmage for a so-called “Week Zero” game. Ninety-nine of the 119 WPIAL teams took that option.

Penn Hills and Pine-Richland typically schedule an out-of-state opponent but found that more difficult this year because Ohio and West Virginia teams start their seasons a week later than Pennsylvania.

“So the next best thing was Pine-Richland at their place,” LeDonne said. “A two-time (defending) WPIAL champion, and with the program that they’ve built you’re playing a powerhouse of a team. It worked out for both of us.”

Pine-Richland (11-3) won the WPIAL Class 6A title last season. Penn Hills (16-0) won WPIAL Class 5A and the state title.

“There’s no better matchup,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “They just won a state championship, so we love the opportunity to play them.”

Penn Hills and Pine-Richland shared a conference in 2016 and ’17 before the Indians moved to Class 5A. Kasperowicz and LeDonne also are good friends.

“I think it’s a huge test for us,” Kasperowicz said. “It’s a good Penn Hills team, well-coached with a lot of athletes and playing with a lot of swagger.”

A year ago, Pine-Richland hosted IMG Academy in Week Zero after facing Ohio schools in 2017 and ’16. Penn Hills traveled to Steubenville, Ohio, last August.

Both teams are different than they were then.

Pine-Richland graduated its entire offensive line, a dominant group that included Notre Dame and Indiana recruits. But the Rams return most of their skill-position starters, including 1,400-yard passer Cole Spencer and 1,400-yard rusher Luke Meckler.

Penn Hills returns only seven starters total, three on one side of the football and four on the other.

Senior quarterback Eddie McKissick takes over for 2,800-yard passer Hollis Mathis, who is at William & Mary. Junior running back Derrick Topeck replaces St. Francis (Pa.) recruit Terry “Tank” Smith in the backfield.

That roster turnover makes it a little more difficult to sit at home and miss the game, LeDonne said.

“We have such a young team and a lot of the guys are playing in their first varsity game,” he said. “You want to see how guys are going to respond to that adversity and what kind of look they have on their faces.”

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

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