Unbeaten Hempfield readies for its biggest game in decades, a clash with Penn-Trafford

Wednesday, September 21, 2022 | 7:57 PM

It’s one of the biggest questions asked by casual high school football fans in Westmoreland County: Why can’t Hempfield be a consistent winner?

Why can’t the largest school in the county be successful?

The school has been very successful in other sports such as baseball, basketball, softball, cross country, track and field, wrestling and volleyball. But the football team, because of its larger enrollment, has been forced to play some of the top teams in the state in Mt. Lebanon, North Allegheny, Central Catholic and Seneca Valley in WPIAL Class 6A competition.

That changed this season. The Spartans dropped to Class 5A, and second-year coach Mike Brown returns a group of players who are tired of being asked why they can’t win.

With the team’s first 4-0 start since 1971, the Spartans are winning over their doubters and pleasing loyal fans.

The 1971 team actually went 6-0 before falling to Kiski Area, 13-8, on Oct. 21. They finished 9-1.

Hempfield has put everything together to start the 2022 season. The offense is averaging a smidge under 49 points per game, the defense has allowed only 24 points, and the special teams have been solid.

That great start has set them up for their biggest home game in more than 25 years, since they battled Connellsville in 1996 for the Quad South Conference title.

It’s a big test for the Spartans as they face three tough home games beginning Friday when reigning WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A champion Penn-Trafford, ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL, rolls into town. The Warriors won last year’s matchup 45-14. Gateway follows Sept. 30, and Seneca Valley comes to town Oct. 7.

While big games are new for Hempfield, they are not for Penn-Trafford, especially under coach John Ruane.

The Warriors are 3-1 this season and have owned the series against the Spartans, winning 24 of the 27 meetings, including 19 consecutive wins. The last time the Spartans beat the Warriors was in 1997, 22-16.

The impressive start by Hempfield has caught the attention of Ruane.

“They are really good,” Ruane said. “Mike has done an awesome job. They have good fundamentals. They are physical and playing with a lot of energy.”

Hempfield features an up-tempo offense led by quarterback Jake Phillips, running backs Gino Caesar and Elijah Binakonsky and a veteran line.

Phillips had a hand in all seven touchdowns in the Spartans’ 48-7 win at Shaler. He ran for three scores and threw four touchdown passes, two to Daniel Katonka.

He completed 18 of 21 passes for 312 yards and ran for 50 yards. Caesar rushed for 55 yards, and Katonka caught three passes for 87 yards.

“We knew the first four games were winnable,” said Brown, a 2009 graduate of Penn-Trafford and elementary teacher in Penn-Trafford School District. “We did what we expected, and winning those games gave us a lot of confidence.

“We weren’t perfect in those games, and I feel we’ve handled the adversity and handled it well. The players realize what they have to do.”

Penn-Trafford is a different animal. The Warriors have been in big games before. They know pressure.

This year, Penn-Trafford has played a tough nonconference schedule and was in tight games against Canon-McMillan, McKeesport and last week at Belle Vernon when quarterback Conlan Greene rushed for 132 yards and scored two touchdowns. Running back Tasso Whipple rushed for 68 yards and Tommy Kalkstein came up with a huge interception to set up the winning score in the fourth quarter.

Brown said he knows what Penn-Trafford will bring into the game.

“They are physical and disciplined,” Brown said. “They don’t make mistakes, and they’ll capitalize on yours. They’ll be ready to go and will be well prepared.”

One thing Penn-Trafford has is a big, physical line that can match Hempfield’s big, experienced line.

Penn-Trafford features senior center Joe Enick, senior guard Michael Paterra and sophomore tackle Zach Tomosovich. Hempfield counters with senior tackles Will Nelson and Logan Eisaman and junior defensive end Joe Dolinski.

Ruane said dealing with Hempfield’s up-tempo offense will be a challenge.

“Hopefully our offense will control the ball longer to keep their offense on the sideline,” Ruane said. “We have to prepare for both their running game and passing attack. We have to be sharp on defense and force them into long-yardage situations.”

Its a game the Hempfield fans have been waiting for.

Paul Schofield is a TribLive reporter covering high school and college sports and local golf. He joined the Trib in 1995 after spending 15 years at the Daily Courier in Connellsville, where he served as sports editor for 14 years. He can be reached at pschofield@triblive.com.

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