Through ups and downs, Pine-Richland back in WPIAL semifinals against Penn-Trafford

Wednesday, November 17, 2021 | 4:53 PM

Don’t let Pine-Richland’s record fool you.

The reigning PIAA and WPIAL Class 5A champions are a talented football team despite the twists and turns of the past 11 months.

Now they find themselves back in the WPIAL semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday against No. 2 Penn-Trafford (9-2) at Pete Antimarino Stadium at Gateway High School in Monroeville.

The Pine-Richland team (7-4) has been through a lot.

There was controversy when veteran coach Eric Kasperowicz was relieved of his duties by the district, which split the community for a time.

Once new coach Steve Campos got the team on board, he had to replace 17 starters and face a difficult schedule. The Rams opened with three consecutive losses to Harrisburg (26-21), Seneca Valley (24-20) and Central Catholic (49-35).

“We had a tough beginning,” Campos said. “I believe Harrisburg has one loss, Central Catholic’s in the 6A finals, and we let one get away at Seneca Valley. But we recovered, and then injuries hit us in the North Hills game. I’d like to have that one back.”

Along the way, Pine-Richland has lost starting quarterback Cole Boyd for the season after five games, all-state junior center Isaiah Kern, senior tackle Jalen Klemm and senior guard Sam Greene to lower body injuries. Klemm, the son of Steelers’ offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, has numerous Division I offers.

According to Campos, all the injured players have already had surgery.

In the North Hills game, the Rams were missing running back Brooks Eastburn and quarterback Ryan Palmieri, who switched from running back to replace Boyd.

“The kids realized there was a job to do after I was hired and came together,” said Campos, who was an assistant at Seneca Valley. “Early on, it was a feeling-out process between the players and coaches. But everyone responded.”

Pine-Richland finished as tri-champions in the Northeast Conference with Penn Hills and North Hills. The WPIAL football committee decided to give Pine-Richland the No. 3 seed over the other two.

They opened the WPIAL playoffs, following a bye in the first round, by rallying to defeat Peters Township, 20-14, in a rematch of the 2020 championship game.

The Rams trailed in the second half and rallied for the win.

“We told them at halftime that this was their final game on this field,” Campos said. “Our backs were against the wall and that they either had to show up in the second half or go home. They showed up.”

Now they have a rematch with Penn-Trafford, a team they defeated in the 2020 semifinals, 49-14.

This is the third time the schools have met in the WPIAL playoffs. Penn-Trafford defeated Pine-Richland, 38-34, in 2015 semifinals.

Both teams have rich playoff history. Penn-Trafford has reached the WPIAL playoffs 17 of the past 18 seasons and Pine-Richland 10 of the past 12.

The Rams have won five WPIAL titles (2020, 2018, 2017, 2014 and 2003) and were runners-up in 2019. The Warriors have reached the WPIAL finals three times, the last in 2017.

“They are talented and a very good football team,” Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane said. “They have a lot of kids who have playoff experience.”

For the second consecutive game, the Warriors are facing a team that lost its starting quarterback to a season-ending injury.

Boyd, who threw for 1,159 yards and 12 touchdowns, got hurt in Game 5. Palmieri has taken over and has thrown for 493 yards and three touchdowns.

“What we lose in the passing game from Ryan we gain in the running game,” Campos said. “He’s done a nice job.”

Eastburn has become the top running back for the Rams. He’s rushed for 663 yards and six touchdowns. Palmieri has gained 297 yards and scored five touchdowns while senior Alex Gochis has 34 catches for 600 yards and five touchdowns.

“They are still about 50-50 in the run and pass,” Ruane said. “They run a 4-3 defense and mix the spread and run a lot of power.

“They showed a lot of character the way they came back last week. They have a lot of high-character kids.”

One of the players on defense that Penn-Trafford must account for is linebacker Jeremiah Hasley, who is committed to Duke. Hasley had 17 tackles, 10 solo, and four tackles for losses against Peters Township.

Campos said he’s impressed with Penn-Trafford’s size up front and how well quarterback Carter Green and running Cade Yacamelli complement each other.

“They run the ball very well,” Campos said. “They are big and physical. It’s going to be a test to see how our line stacks up against them.”

Yacamelli has rushed for 1,290 yards and 16 touchdowns and Green 916 yards and 14 scores.

Green has also completed 65 of 110 passes for 983 yards and nine touchdowns.

Liam Hileman is the leading receiver with 13 catches for 187 yards. Yacamelli has 12 catches for 165 yards and three scores while Tommy Kalkstein has 10 catches for 249 yards and three scores.

“We have to play mistake free and make sure every possession counts,” Ruane said. “We have to play at another level.”

The survivor earns another trip to Heinz Field on Nov. 27.

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

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