South Allegheny looks to finish strong under new head coach

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Sunday, September 6, 2020 | 11:13 PM


It was a different type of offseason for high school football teams across the country, given the restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

At South Allegheny, the challenges spread wider than quarantined workouts, Zoom meetings and an inability to take the field together throughout the spring and early summer months.

A new head coach was taking the reins.

Luckily for the Gladiators, they were greeted at training camp by a familiar face.

Frank Cortazzo III spent the past three seasons as the Gladiators’ defensive coordinator and stepped in as head coach when Mike Crown was hired as the school’s athletic director.

“The offseason has been good,” said Cortazzo, who also had assistant coaching stints at Franklin Regional, East Allegheny, Elizabeth Forward and also two previous stops at South Allegheny. “We had great attendance throughout the summer. The kids worked very hard.”

It was crucial for the Gladiators to maintain some continuity during the offseason when players were forced to work out on their own and stay in touch with video conferencing. Now that they are back on the field and getting ready for the regular season, the coaches can get things back to normal.

“(Cortazzo) keeps thing fun and creative for all of us,” said Antonio Epps, a senior running back/defensive back.

Epps will be the centerpiece of the Gladiators’ offense. After rushing for more than 1,300 yards and scoring 13 times last season, he is closing in on school records for career rushing yards and touchdowns.

“Leadership, a great work ethic, powerful runner with breakaway speed,” Cortazzo said. “He has a great grasp on the game that allows him to play defense at a level that not many can play at.”

Epps has several scholarship offers from Division I schools, including Sacred Heart, Duquesne and Richmond. He will obviously be the focal point for opposing defenses, though he was quick to point out there are plenty of other skilled options the Gladiators will lean on.

“I expect a lot of points on the board,” Epps said. “We have a lot of skill guys who can score. I’m excited for that this season. Not one person will score all the points. No matter who gets the ball, it will be someone to watch out for.”

Junior Jett Jones will be a jack-of-all trades on offense, lining up at wide receiver, in the slot and H-back, as well as quarterback at times. Last season, he threw for 671 yards and five touchdowns.

“He is an incredible athlete that allows us to utilize his skills at multiple positions,” Cortazzo said.

Strong-armed sophomore Eric Wehrer will start at quarterback, and several other skill players will factor into the offensive game plan, including juniors Akell Carrington, Kavan Markwood, Dillon Hynes, Eric Anderson and Ethan Kirkwood and sophomore Dashawn Carter.

Senior Omir Faulkner and junior WIll Hynes return to anchor both lines, along with senior Louis Campano, junior Damon Campano, junior Travis Mullin and senior Eric Parker.

Defensively, several veterans return, including Epps, Jones and Kirkwood in the secondary; junior Chris Guest, Carrington and Markwood at linebacker; and the Campano brothers, Faulkner and Hynes on the defensive line. Anderson, Parker and Carter also will be impact players on defense.

“Our linebackers, they’re going to be the tone setters for our defense and we’ll piggyback on that energy,” Epps said.

The Gladiators are aiming to keep that energy throughout the seven-game season. They missed out on the playoffs after going 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the Class 2A Three Rivers Conference last season. They lost four of the final five games after starting 3-2.

“After these past couple years after not making the playoffs, playoffs is our mindset,” Epps said. “We try to make that goal even bigger by getting a championship.

“It will take discipline, dedicating ourselves and following our coaches’ orders and game plan. Last year, we lacked discipline and didn’t finish games off.”

South Allegheny will move into the Class 3A Interstate Conference this fall with Brownsville, Elizabeth Forward, Mt. Pleasant, South Park, Southmoreland and Yough.

“I expect tough, physical, smash-mouth football with some teams that have been traditionally tough, hard-nosed teams,” Cortazzo said.

Schedule

Coach: Frank Cortazzo III

2019 record: 4-6, 3-4 in Class 2A Three Rivers Conference

All-time record: 179-341-6

Date, Opponent, Time

9.11, at Mt. Pleasant*, 7

9.18, Southmoreland*, 7

9.25, at Yough*, 7

10.2, Brownsville*, 7

10.9, at Elizabeth Forward*, 7

10.16, South Park*, 7

10.23, at Deer Lakes, 7

*Class 3A Interstate Conference game

Fast facts

• The Gladiators have experience all over the field but will be trying to replace three key graduates on the lines — Chase Nicomatti, Zach Martin and Frankie Cortazzo.

• South Allegheny’s last WPIAL playoff appearance came in 2012, a loss to Jeannette, 40-7, in the first round.

• The Gladiators’ lone WPIAL football title came in 1977 when they beat Laurel, 12-6, to win the Class AA championship.

• That championship game was moved from Pitt Stadium to Ambridge. It was a cold winter day and snow covered the field after halftime.

Bill Hartlep is the sports editor of the Tribune-Review. You can contact Bill at bhartlep@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TribHSInsider.

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