Pine-Richland set to kick off season against top-ranked team in country

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Thursday, August 23, 2018 | 4:09 PM


The defending WPIAL and PIAA champion in Pennsylvania’s largest classification, Pine-Richland, will battle the top-ranked football team in the country at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Pine-Richland High School, kicking off high school football season in a marquee matchup.

IMG Academy, centered out of Bradenton, Fla., enters this season as the No. 1-ranked team in the country, according to USA Today. The sports training facility began its football program in 2013. The Ascenders have not lost a game since 2014, and are riding a 37-game winning streak.

There’s good reason for the hype surrounding IMG Academy, as its 112-man roster is overflowing with talent at every position.

Rivals.com grades IMG’s Trey Sanders as the No. 1 running back prospect in the country. His backup, Noah Cain, is the No. 4 running back recruit, per the same list.

“They’re an extremely talented team, there’s no doubt about it. Every player they got is a four or five-star recruit that’s going to Alabama or Michigan or Ohio State,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said.

“We don’t have that. But we do have a heck of a team. I told our guys yesterday that those star players, they can win you a lot of games. But with a great team, you can win every game. That’s what we got. We got a great team, a great group of guys that love to play together, and we’re excited to see what we got out there when we go up against them.”

The clash between the two top-tier football programs could be dictated by their battle in the trenches. The Pine-Richland offensive line is headlined by Division-I caliber talents Andrew Kristofic (Notre Dame), Michael Katic (Indiana) and Michael Dorundo.

However, Kasperowicz said the Ascenders’ pass rush will be the stiffest challenge his linemen have faced, to date. The Rams’ three horsemen will have their work cut out for them with Georgia commit and Rivals.com’s No. 2-ranked defensive end in the country, Nolan Smith (6-3, 232), along with Miami (Fla.) commit Tre’Von Riggins (6-4, 225), one of the top recruits in the graduating class of 2020.

The Rams will be looking to keep sophomore quarterback Cole Spencer as clean as possible in his first career start at the varsity level.

Meanwhile, on defense, Pine-Richland will attempt to hold the line against a couple Rivals.com top-100 recruits in monster tackle Evan Neal (6-7, 360) and Florida State commit Dontae Lucas (6-4, 327) at guard.

“Those front-seven are going to have to lead us. I was telling the kids yesterday that if we can tackle, we’re going to be in really good shape. There’s going to be situations where (linebackers) Tyler King or Anthony Cerminara, or one of our safeties or defensive linemen, is in an open-field tackling situation,” Kasperowicz said.

“We’re going to have to make those tackles. If we can do that, and run to the ball, and prevent the big play, prevent the big run, prevent the big throw over our heads, then we’ll be right there in the fourth quarter with a chance to win it.”

Although Kasperowicz isn’t shy about the wealth of talent on his roster, the sixth-year Rams also knows when he’s outgunned. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pine-Richland dip into its bag of tricks to catch the Ascenders off-guard.

“We’re definitely going to have to get a little creative. We can’t just sit in our base; we have to do some different things,” Kasperowicz said. “That’s where the chess match comes in.”

Kevin Lohman is a freelance writer.

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