Following title game loss, Central Valley motivated to finish

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Friday, August 11, 2023 | 12:01 AM


By almost all standards, Central Valley had a very successful 2022 season. But the standards in Monaca are a bit different.

The Warriors finished 11-2, falling in the Class 4A championship game to rival Aliquippa at Acrisure Stadium. The 34-7 loss — their second to the Quips last fall — was a painful one, snapping a run of three straight district titles for the program.

“When you get to that point and not finish, when you get so close and don’t finish, that should be motivation enough for our guys,” Central Valley coach Mark Lyons said. “They got stung a little bit in that championship game, and I’m thinking that sour taste is going to last pretty long for them.”

Now, thanks to graduation, Lyons’ team will look to once again reload — something they’re more than accustomed to in the program’s brief history — with the goals the same as always: win the Parkway Conference, win the WPIAL and win the state.

But, to get to that point, some new faces will need to emerge. Gone are the team’s leading passer, rusher, receiver and tackler from 2022. That, however, doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare.

“I thought we were too young in some spots last year,” said Lyons, the only coach Central Valley has ever known. “But those guys got a first-hand lesson on playing big games.”

At quarterback, junior Steven Rutherford will take over for Antwon Johnson, who passed for 1,315 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Rutherford played sparingly, but did get time thanks to several lopsided Central Valley wins.

“He’s been in our program for a while now,” said Lyons, who has been impressed with the team’s overall depth at the position. “He’s taken the necessary steps. He’s paid attention and has done everything you ask him. He’s an intelligent young man, and I’m excited to see what he can do with the keys to the car.”

Who he throws to is in some question. Central Valley lost its top five pass catchers and returns no one who recorded more than one reception last season. Kole Hiltz, Quinn Connolly and BJ Nastick will be the primary targets.

Bret FitzSimmons will need to be replaced in the backfield after running for 1,723 yards and 28 touchdowns last year. Brandon Singleton will get a bulk of the carries after racking up 420 rushing yards and four touchdowns. And the aptly named Mason Dixon has proven to work well with the Central Valley line despite being injured late last fall.

“He was having a solid year and quietly coming into his own on both sides of the ball,” Lyons said. “He’s healthy and his body is built better for the high school game now. I expect big things from him.”

The players returning up front have Lyons most comfortable. Nick McCreary, Tyler Ondrusek and Tyler Costanza are all returning starters on the offensive line.

Defensively, Central Valley got some early varsity experience for a pair of inside linebackers last season. Due to injury, two freshmen started at the position during the postseason in JJ Work and Ethan Shearer. They’ll both join Dixon at linebacker this year. Ondrusek and Costanza will anchor the interior of the defensive line.

Central Valley has had plenty of star power over the years, with Power 5 prospects like Robert Foster, Jordan Whitehead and Sean FitzSimmons leading previous title-winning teams. Now, the Warriors may just have their next elite talent in sophomore Brendan Alexander, a 6-foot-4, 262-pound two-way lineman who has already picked up an offer from Central Michigan.

“He’s grown into his body, he’s moving better, and his feet are starting to match the length of his body,” Lyons said. “Now he just had to focus on the mental part of having to keep his game elevated on every snap. … I’m excited to see where his ceiling can go.”

The Warriors won’t have an easy schedule, batting the rigorous Class 4A Parkway Conference throughout the year, including a Week 9 showdown with Aliquippa in what could very well be another championship preview, as it was in 2022.

Lyons knows that, between now and then, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get a slightly inexperienced team ready. But, with a culture that is well established and has an assumption of excellence each year, Central Valley is again primed to get back on that championship track.

“Our guys have a standard,” Lyons added. “They understand the expectations and I can tell with how they carry themselves that last year didn’t sit well with them, nor should it. The offseason indicated that. … I’m excited to see what they’re going to do with it.”

Central Valley

Coach: Mark Lyons

2022 record: 11-2, 6-1 in Class 4A Parkway Conference

All-time record: 136-31-0

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.25 at Austintown Fitch (Ohio) 7

9.1 at Avonworth, 7

9.8 Hampton, 7

9.15 at Chartiers Valley*, 7

9.22 New Castle*, 7

9.29 at Blackhawk*, 7

10.6 Montour*, 7

10.13 Ambridge*, 7

10.20 at West Allegheny*, 7

10.27 Aliquippa*, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Antwon Johnson*

82-138, 1,315 yards, 16 TDs

Rushing: Bret FitzSimmons*

173-1,723 yards, 28 TDs

Receiving: Jayvin Thompson*

37-683 yards, 11 TDs

*Graduated

FAST FACTS

• Central Valley starts the season against perennial Ohio power Austintown-Fitch on Aug. 25.

• The Warriors’ program has only existed since 2010, but has won five WPIAL titles already. Only Clairton (7) and Aliquippa (6) have won more championships during that stretch.

• Central Valley must also replace its kicker from last year, Serafino Desantis, who converted 48 of 50 extra points and all four field goals attempted.

• All-time, members of the Parkway Conference have won a combined 53 WPIAL titles.

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