Ryan Palmieri, Pine-Richland top Woodland Hills to get back to WPIAL championship game

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Saturday, November 12, 2022 | 12:16 AM


For a team used to playing for WPIAL football championships, Pine-Richland came away from Friday night’s Class 5A semifinal battle with Woodland Hills like it had never before been to the finals.

The second-seeded Rams broke their postseason huddle with a burst of enthusiasm — and relief — knowing they’d earned another chance at a championship after grinding their way to a 23-12 victory over the sixth-ranked Wolverines at Gateway High School.

Quarterback Ryan Palmieri rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns and Pine-Richland took advantage of five Woodland Hills fumbles. The Rams advance to a WPIAL championship game for the seventh time since 2012, the year they last failed to qualify for the playoffs.

Pine-Richland (9-3) won for the eighth time in a row and will meet No. 5 Upper St. Clair (10-2) for the Class 5A championship at noon Saturday, Nov. 19 at Norwin High School.

The Rams were beaten by Penn-Trafford in the semifinals last season in Steve Campos’ only year as coach. Prior to that, during an eight-year span under former coach Eric Kasperowicz, Pine-Richland appeared in five WPIAL championship games, winning four en route to three PIAA titles.

“We talked about it early in the year,” first-year Pine-Richland coach Jon LeDonne said, “and with a shaky start, there were definitely some doubters. But the kids believed and bought into what we’re doing. We’re excited to get back to the championship.”

Palmieri, who also had two touchdowns nullified by penalties, carried 30 times in a steady rain, including 17 consecutive rushes and all 14 on a fourth-quarter scoring drive.

“When that happens, I just kind of get into a zone and just go,” said Palmieri, who has played quarterback and running back throughout his high school career.

LeDonne, who led Penn Hills to a 16-0 record and WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A championships in 2018, inserted Palmieri at quarterback and things took off after the Rams started the year 1-3.

“Just the leadership that he brings, the offense rallied around him,” LeDonne said. “I think some of the players on the team were waiting for that move earlier on.”

A pair of sophomores had been splitting time at the position, and LeDonne acknowledged that their inexperience played a role in the team’s slow start.

“We threw them to the fire early on. … Maybe we shouldn’t have done that, but we wanted to challenge our guys early on to see what we’ve got,” he said.

Clinging to a 9-6 halftime lead, Pine-Richland fended off numerous Woodland Hills chances, including five occasions when the the Wolverines were unable to hold onto a wet ball.

After a scoreless third quarter, Elijah Wentz fell on a loose ball, setting up Palmieri’s 3-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to give Pine-Richland a 15-6 advantage.

“It s kind of understandable with the conditions we were in, but at the same time, we practice with wet footballs during the week to try and get ready for these types of situations,” Woodland Hills coach Tim Bostard said.

Pine-Richland got another break when the ball squirted loose again and the Rams took possession, leading to Palmieri’s 7-yard scoring burst that gave the Rams a commanding 23-6 lead with 2 minutes, 35 seconds remaining.

Woodland Hills (6-6) came back less than a minute later, after Amere Brown returned a kickoff 73 yards to the Pine-Richland 12, when Will Smith threw a 12-yard halfback pass for a touchdown to Cam Walter to cut the deficit to 23-12.

But Pine-Richland managed the clock the rest of the way and held on to secure a return to the WPIAL finals.

Palmieri was a huge part of that clock management. At halftime, LeDonne said, Palmieri came to the coach and told him what he wanted to happen. LeDonne smiled as he recalled the moment.

“Palmieri’s our guy,” LeDonne said. “He came in at halftime and said, ‘Coach, give me the ball.’ When you’ve got a leader and a guy that wants the ball, you feed him.”

Palmieri, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior, deflected credit and instead pointed to his teammates.

“Our offensive line has been just stellar all year,” he said. “Another key component is Ethan Pillar. He’s a great running back, but he does more than just carry the ball. Ethan wants to block. He’s a real team guy.”

Pillar put Pine-Richland in front 6-0 with a 5-yard touchdown run with 4:03 left in the first quarter. The drive was set up by Tanner Cunningham’s punt return to the Woodland Hills 31, plus a 15-yard face mask penalty called on Woodland Hills, moving the ball to the 16.

Woodland Hills answered with Frank Keyes’ 2-yard touchdown run with 8:39 to go in the second quarter to tie the score at 6-6.

Grant Argiro, who missed a pair of extra points in the bad elements, managed to boot a 35-yard field goal for Pine-Richland to give the Rams a 9-6 lead with 49 seconds remaining before halftime.

If not for the flurry of Woodland Hills fumbles, Bostard said the outcome could’ve been different.

“We knew it was going to be a tough, physical football game on both sides of the ball,” Bostard said. “The weather was going to dictate that a little bit to us, too. It was 9-6 at halftime, so we came out in the second half and thought we had a legitimate shot.”

In Week 8 this year, with first place at stake in the Northeast Conference, Pine-Richland outlasted Woodland Hills at home, 35-21.

“Five turnovers in the second half did us in (Friday night),” Bostard said. “When you turn it over that many times, odds are you’re not going to come out on top.”

But, he added, “I’m never upset at the kids. I always ask them to give me 100% and leave everything on the field, and I feel that they did that. At the end of the day. I’m proud of them and they did a great job this season. That’s a pretty good football team over there.”

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