Rivals Derry, Mt. Pleasant ready to battle for 1st place in Class 3A Big East

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 | 6:13 PM

When Tim Sweeney took over the Derry football program after the 2013 season, he inherited a team that was at the lowest of lows.

Five years later, the Trojans have won three consecutive conference titles and played for the WPIAL Class 3A championship last fall.

Derry has gone through an impressive run to the top since Sweeney took over a program that went 0-10 and allowed more than 50 points per game. The Trojans are 41-16 since Sweeney took over.

Mt. Pleasant’s program wasn’t as low as Derry’s was, but the past few seasons haven’t gone well for the Vikings.

But Vikings coach Jason Fazekas is trying to revive the program back to respectability. Sure, he’d like get the program back to the Bill Elder days of the early 1980s when the Vikings played in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game, winning in 1983 and ’86.

“We’re trying to get back where we were,” Fazekas said. “For us, it’s a big game. What Derry has done the last couple of years, they’ve done a great job. We’ve been down a little bit, and we’re trying to get back.”

Those seasons also featured some classic battles with Derry where fans jammed the stadiums, and the 50/50 pot was in the thousands.

The teams will square off Friday at Trojan Stadium in a WPIAL Class 3A Big East Conference battle with first place in the conference on the line.

The Trojans want show the Vikings they are still the kings of the conference. Mt. Pleasant wants to show the Trojans the Vikings are on the way back.

Derry has won the past three contests — 48-7 in 2018, 41-9 in ’17 and 34-14 in ’16. The Vikings won the previous two meetings — 42-7 in 2015 and 35-7 in ’14. They did not meet in ’13 when the Trojans went 0-10.

Both teams opened the season with losses at home to local rivals: Mt. Pleasant lost to Southmoreland, 27-24, and Derry dropped a 20-14 overtime decision to Latrobe. Both followed with consecutive victories.

“We’ve made improvements from Week 1 to Week 2 and little more from Week Zero to Week 1,” Sweeney said. “We’ve improved, but we’ll need to continue to improve to stay with Mt. Pleasant.

“They look like a team on a mission that wants to get things done. The way they are playing now, I’m sure they’d like to have that Southmoreland game back. Mt. Pleasant is tough and has tough kids.”

Justin Huss has been one of the big offensive weapons for the Trojans. The senior has scored nine touchdowns, rushed for 567 yards and caught a team-high seven passes for 96 yards.

Junior quarterback Paul Koontz has completed 21 of 35 passes for 266 yards. He gives Derry experience as a signal-caller.

Derry’s biggest strength is its offensive and defensive lines. They’ll be challenged by a Mt. Pleasant group trying to make its mark.

“It’s a battle with Mt. Pleasant at every position, not just its offensive line,” Sweeney said. “The defense runs to the ball. The backs run hard, and they block well.

“Justin has been running hard. We gave him the ball 33 times against Freeport, but we can’t do that every week. Justin isn’t a big back, so last week we were able to do other things. We need to get other kids the football.”

After losing to Southmoreland, the Vikings rebounded with a win at Hopewell and won a shootout with Yough.

Jake Johnson has been the Vikings’ big threat. He has scored eight touchdowns, rushed for 285 yards and caught five passes for 135 yards.

The Vikings running game has been strong. Nick Loughner has scored three touchdowns and rushed for 257 yards, and quarterback Asher O’Conner has rushed for 132 yards and completed 13 of 39 passes for 275 yards and three scores.

“If we want to be like we used to be, we have to play well against this team,” Fazekas said. “At least that’s the mindset going into this week. We’ll have to play our best game to beat them, and that’s how we’re practicing this year.”

Though Derry graduated several talented players from the 2018 team, Fazekas doesn’t see much of a dropoff in talent.

“They are still a talented group,” Fazekas said. “The Huss kid has done a great job the past few weeks.”

At Monday’s practice at Mt. Pleasant and Tuesday’s practice at Derry, both coaches were reminding their players to be physical all week. That should make for a hard-hitting contest.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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