Penn-Trafford to rely on recent playoff experience in matchup with USC
By: Bill Beckner Jr.
Tuesday, November 7, 2017 | 6:09 PM
Experience, Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane said, is the best trait a football team can have at the high school level.
Ruane would know. He has been to the WPIAL semifinals nine times — four with Penn-Trafford and five as an assistant at Gateway — and has made five trips to the finals at Heinz Field, most recently with the Warriors two years ago.
“Kids learn from the playoffs, and they pick up on details,” Ruane said. “Teams you play each week get better and better. What I liked about (last) Friday night was how our seniors gathered the rest of the group and picked them up.”
Ruane has led the Warriors to nine playoff wins. The program had seven postseason wins previously, from 1972-2009.
But despite his postseason trips and run of success, Ruane, in his eighth season at Penn-Trafford, has never faced Upper St. Clair and longtime coach Jim Render, who is in his 39th season and has 398 wins.
The top-seeded Warriors (10-1) take on No. 4 Upper St. Clair (8-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in a WPIAL Class 5A semifinal at West Mifflin.
“We've played everyone in 5A but them,” Ruane said. “He's probably been (to the semifinals) 35 times, so there is experience on their end, too.”
The winner gets the winner of No. 6 McKeesport (8-2) and No. 3 Gateway (10-1) on Nov. 18 at Heinz Field for the championship.
Penn-Trafford forced back Fox Chapel, 28-21, in the first round.
Upper St. Clair is known for being a traditional power, seemingly always in the playoff conversation, often times the team nobody wants to play.
The Panthers exchanged punts and drive-killing plays last week in the first round against Franklin Regional. They won 6-3 to return to the semifinals for the first time in three years.
“They're as well-coached a team as we're going to see,” Ruane said. “Their attention to detail is immaculate. They try to exploit you on special teams and force you to make mistakes. And their offense is dynamic. They've been doing things pretty well for 40 years.”
Penn-Trafford has leaned on a strong running game and steady line play and on a defense that allows an average of 10.4 points.
Quarterback Cam Laffoon also buys in to the experience factor.
“We've had some games with adversity,” Laffoon said. “The Franklin Regional game came down to the wire. Games like that help make us stronger.”
Warriors' leading tackler Matt Wilkie said the team played with urgency last week in the first round when No. 8 seed Fox Chapel took the lead three times. Penn-Trafford's first lead came in the fourth quarter when 1,000-yard rusher John Gay IV broke away for the deciding touchdown at Warrior Stadium.
“We didn't want that to be our last game,” Wilkie said.
Ruane has been known to call risky plays — such as a fake punt in the fourth quarter last week — to spark his teams.
A patient drive that covered 87 yards in 8 minutes, 37 seconds and also saw the Warriors convert two third downs, allowed them to tie Fox Chapel, 21-21.
Ruane is not afraid to ad lib again should the right situation arise and the season hang in the balance.
“It's about seizing momentum,” Ruane said. “If you feel something slipping away you have to do something. We rep things in practice for the opportune times.”
Penn-Trafford made the finals in 1997 and 2015, finishing runner-up both times. A third trip could come down to taking care of the ball.
“We have to pay attention to details,” Wilkie said. “And we can't make mistakes.
While senior lineman Logan Hawkins, an Akron recruit, returned to the lineup and was effective last week, the Warriors again will be without junior tight end Dominic Rosso, who broke his elbow in the McKeesport game.