Penn Hills driven to return to playoffs after near miss last season

Thursday, August 10, 2023 | 11:13 PM

Penn Hills wide receiver/defensive back Cam Thomas doesn’t want to miss any opportunities. For the Indians’ football program to get back on track — and back in the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs — Thomas believes wins will need to come through better execution.

In Thomas’ case, he wants to create more big plays.

“I’m trying to improve on going to get the ball more,” said Thomas, who has offers from Akron, St. Francis and Maine. “Last year, I only had three picks. This year, I need to have a higher number.”

Penn Hills is eager to set goals and have accountability after narrowly missing out on the playoffs last season. The Indians were 5-5 and finished 4-2 in Northeast Conference play. Penn Hills missed the playoffs after being upended 7-3 by Woodland Hills in the last week of the regular season.

The Indians had several tough losses last season. Penn Hills lost by two points to Seneca Valley, five to Central Catholic and by one to North Hills.

Indians coach Charles Morris said Penn Hills is focused on having a winning mentality this season.

“Honestly, we just want to focus on what we can control,” Morris said. “We aren’t worried about the things we can’t control. There’s going to be adversity throughout the season, and we just have to respond well to it.”

Penn Hills will be bringing back plenty of players with experience who are battled tested. Quarterback Julian Dugger, who recently committed to play at Pitt, passed for 1,137 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions last year.

“Julian is fantastic,” Morris said. “It helps with the kids feeling more comfortable that they have their leader under center. His experience and composure make him a good leader.”

Returning senior running back Amir Key will help Dugger in the backfield. Key rushed for a team-high 978 yards last season on 150 carries. Naytel Mitchell is a running back/linebacker who returns and is a good receiving option out of the backfield.

At wide receiver, Penn Hills will bring back D’Andre Cochran, who caught nine passes for 246 yards last season, along with Santana Levi-Jordan, Martel Palmer, Wes Epperson and Thomas.

Kelsey Hundley, Carter Lance and Benard Ndum will return on the offensive line.

On defense, Penn Hills will be returning five starters. Cochran, Mitchell and Thomas were all chosen first-team all-conference last season.

“Our defense is going to be good like usual,” Thomas said. “We keep people from getting into the end zone. With all of the experience we have, we play well together. I really like our pass rush. We are all able to help each other.”

Penn Hills will open the season with a home game Aug. 25 against Seneca Valley. The Indians will open conference play Sept. 8 at Pine-Richland.

“One of the things we have made sure we brought is a family atmosphere,” Morris said. “That has been what is amazing going into year two. I’m excited to get back on the winning track. We have the defending state champs in our conference and there are a lot of tough teams and great coaches. I’m looking forward to it.”

Penn Hills

Coach: Charles Morris

2022 record: 5-5, 3-2 in Class 5A Northeast Conference

All-time record: 533-321-22


Date, Opponent, Time

8.25 Seneca Valley, 7

9.1 at Norwin, 7

9.8 at Pine-Richland*, 7

9.15 Moon, 7

9.22 at North Hills*, 7

9.29 Bethel Park, 7

10.6 Fox Chapel*, 7

10.13 at Central Catholic, 7

10.20 at Shaler*, 7

10.27 Woodland Hills, 7

*Conference game


Passing: Julian Dugger

73-130 1,137 yards, 10 TDs

Receiving: Raion Strader*

16-258 yards

Rushing: Amir Key

160-978 yards



• Indians receiver Cam Thomas’ brother, Corey Thomas Jr., plays football at the University of Akron.

• Penn Hills offensive lineman Kelsey Hundley also plays basketball, wrestles and is on the volleyball team.

• The Indians have made the playoffs in four of the past five seasons.

• Penn Hills coach Charles Morris is in his second season.


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