Peters Township eyes 1st WPIAL title, but defending champion Pine-Richland stands in the way
Friday, November 17, 2023 | 11:20 AM
This was just another week of practice for Peters Township’s football team, exactly like any of the others the Indians had this season.
At least that was the idea.
It’s hard to do in the days leading up to a WPIAL championship game, but coach T.J. Plack tried his best.
“I wanted nothing different than a regular week,” he said. “I’ve entertained in the past a team send off or a (championship) T-shirt. I want none of that. One of the teachers said, ‘Are they going to have a pep rally?’
“I said: ‘Shh!’”
Peters Township has never won a WPIAL title, so there’s understandable excitement around an undefeated team that entered the playoffs as the favorite. The Indians finished as WPIAL runners-up in 2019 and ’20, years that Plack said the team indulged in more pregame hype.
This time, he said, there was a different mindset. Win this week and they’ll have all winter to celebrate.
“I want no accolades because we haven’t done anything yet,” Plack said. “I told the kids that and told the parents that. You can do whatever you want afterward, but nothing before.”
No. 1 Peters Township (12-0) faces No. 3 Pine-Richland (9-3) in the WPIAL Class 5A final at noon Saturday at Norwin. To win their first title, the Indians must topple the reigning WPIAL and PIAA champion.
The seeding says Peters Township is the favorite, and rightfully so, but recent history is on Pine-Richland’s side. The Rams have won five WPIAL titles in the past nine years. They’re now seeking their second in two years under second-year coach Jon LeDonne.
Pine-Richland returned about half of last year’s starting lineup.
“Without a doubt, that’s an advantage,” Plack said of Pine-Richland’s experience. “I’m not going to sit here and say they’re not as hungry as we are because they won it. But we’re definitely hungry. We’re definitely focused.”
Pine-Richland is trying to become the first team to repeat as WPIAL 5A champions since the classification was created in 2016.
“There’s a little bit of calmness and confidence,” LeDonne said of his players. “They’re familiar with practices in November. Half of those guys playing right now were a part of that last year.”
Peters Township missed the playoffs a year ago, but improved much this season. The Indians have the highest-scoring offense in WPIAL 5A and the stingiest defense in the entire WPIAL.
They’re scoring 40 points per game and allowing 6.9. Combined, they outscored their first two playoff opponents, 76-18.
Peters Township uses an uncommon defensive formation with three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. The group isn’t especially big up front, but the Indians do have speed.
Plus both outside linebackers — junior Mickey Vaccarello (6-3, 210) and sophomore Reston Lehman (6-4, 225) — have Division I college offers.
“Defensively, they swarm to the ball,” LeDonne said. “It’s a little more unique of a defense that we don’t see too often. The extra day (of practice) to prepare for it is needed. At this time of year, you see a lot of different things.”
Sophomore quarterback Nolan DiLucia, a first-year starter, leads a Peters Township offense that has shown good balance. DiLucia has passed for 2,356 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Five receivers have more than 20 catches apiece, and running back Vinny Sarcone leads the team with 20 touchdowns.
One key question will be how well Peters Township matches up with Pine-Richland’s line. The Rams’ top blocker, senior Ryan Cory (6-4, 290), is a Wisconsin recruit, but all five offensive linemen are seniors.
They’ve provided the muscle for a wildcat offense that’s made running back Ethan Pillar a 1,400-yard rusher. Pillar, a senior, leads with 22 touchdowns.
“The Cory kid is pretty dang good on both sides of the ball,” Plack said. “They’ve got a couple of other kids around his size who move really well. Our defense is built on quickness and strength and penetration (rather than size) … so that might be something different they’re not used to.”
Pine-Richland started the season with losses in two of its first three games and three of its first six. But following a script that also worked a year ago, the Rams embraced a run-heavy strategy later in the year and have won six in a row.
Freshman Aaron Strader, a dual-threat QB, and senior passer Kanan Huffman give the Rams some offensive flexibility.
Pine-Richland averages 31.5 points per game and allows 13.9.
These teams met in the WPIAL finals once before. Pine-Richland ran away with a 35-0 victory in the 2020 finals, when Eric Kasperowicz still was coaching the Rams.
Plack said that loss wasn’t as painful as a 21-20 loss to Gateway in 2019. Peters Township had two late chances to put together a winning drive but couldn’t get going in a rain-soaked loss.
“They say a close game is worse that getting blown out,” Plack said. “That game against Gateway … that’s what keeps you up at night.”
Plack said the Peters Township players from those runner-up years still discuss which team was the best in Indians’ history, a debate that now includes this year’s roster. It’s a debate Plack hopes can be put to rest this weekend.
“They’re back and forth on which team team is better,” he said. “I told the kids: ‘All you have to do is win one more game and you’ll settle it.’”
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .
More Football• PIAA football Class 5A championship preview: Peters Township vs. Imhotep Charter
• PIAA football Class 2A championship game preview: Westinghouse vs. Southern Columbia
• Trib 10: Top 5 teams in power rankings taking their shot at state gold
• PIAA will let Woodland Hills, Charleroi fix enrollment mistakes, avoid promotion to higher classifications
• Not concerned with any curse, bad luck or superstitions, Aliquippa aims to cap undefeated season with PIAA title