Senior running back Rock helps spark culture change at Latrobe
Thursday, August 15, 2019 | 3:39 PM
A.J. Rock doesn’t hold back his emotions this preseason as he speaks with great conviction about the school’s playoff-hungry football team, insisting the Wildcats are out to change their second-fiddle image.
He believes the process already has begun.
Latrobe posted four victories in 2018 for a second consecutive season, qualifying for the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“You have to develop the team through practice and through everyone working together to get to that point,” said Rock, a senior who was Latrobe’s leading rusher a year ago. “We’re never going to get to that point if we all play as individuals.
“I like how we’re all developing as a team together and all coming together as one whole unit, so we can all move forward and get back to the playoffs.”
Rock sees a winning culture entering in, approaching the horizon, appearing just around the corner at Latrobe, and he’s proud to be part of such a rare energetic phase in football at the school.
“For sure, it’s definitely been a progression,” he said. “Statistical-wise, you can see that. But as a team, we are better well suited. You can hear that at the game from more people staying. They’re actually being excited for us, seeing more of a culture coming on.”
Latrobe’s first chance to shine will come Saturday morning in a scrimmage against Greensburg Salem at Offutt Field. The refurbished, downtown Greensburg facility will be rededicated at 8:45 a.m., followed by the scheduled 10 a.m. scrimmage between the visiting Wildcats and host Golden Lions.
Heading into the day, Rock sent a message to Latrobe fans: “We have to rebuild the culture here if we want to keep winning because we have to have our town behind us. We have to have the fans behind us if we want to keep going forward. That’s what you see at the biggest programs. Everyone loves to go there and watch them play. We are starting that culture up here at Latrobe, a winning culture.”
He also offered a humble message to the Wildcats’ opponents, past and present, being careful not to lose sight of the 55-7 drubbing from Penn Hills, the eventual WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A champion, in the WPIAL first round.
“We didn’t have those huge players all the other teams had,” Rock said. “They had huge, massive talents. We had a bunch of guys who were there to work, who were there to actually get down and dirty. We weren’t just relying on talent. We were relying on grit and a lot of just playing together.
“We were just like a tough bunch. Yeah, we might not have won, but I can guarantee you a lot of those teams were waking up real sore the next morning and wishing, ‘Oh, man, I’m glad we didn’t have to play Latrobe again,’ because we went out there and played hard.”
Latrobe (4-7 in 2018) is looking to take another step this year, even though the Wildcats lost some talented players of their own, most notably East Carolina lineman Trent Holler.
But they return some fine players just the same, including Rock, who led the Wildcats in rushing a year ago with 643 yards on 133 carries. Quarterback Branden Crosby, who passed for nearly 1,000 yards, also is among the 10 returning starters that also includes three two-way players.
Coach Jason Marucco is encouraged by his club’s desire to improve, but he’s also reserved about its deficiencies, most notably on the interior lines, where a new batch of participants have shown a willingness to pick up the pieces.
“We’ve got some depth in the skill positions,” Marucco said, “but we need to develop our offensive line.”
More Football• Guido: After memorable season, time to hand out annual football awards
• Belle Vernon’s long-awaited WPIAL football title was product of tireless work
• WPIAL Class 4A final by the numbers: Aliquippa 34, Central Valley 7
• WPIAL Class 3A final by the numbers: Belle Vernon 24, Avonworth 7
• WPIAL Class 2A final by the numbers: Steel Valley 34, Beaver Falls 14