Upstart programs collide when Cornell, Leechburg meet in Class A quarterfinals

Wednesday, November 10, 2021 | 4:37 PM

Often, coaches and school officials can get upset after earning home-field advantage and having the site moved.

That’s not the case, however, with Cornell.

For the second consecutive week, the Raiders have had a home game moved from Frank Letteri Stadium in Coraopolis.

No. 2 Cornell (8-2) will face No. 7 Leechburg (9-2) at 7 p.m. Friday at North Allegheny’s Newman Stadium.

“Our field is a little beat up right now, so we don’t mind it,” said Raiders coach Ed Dawson. “We will participate wherever the game is, whether it’s on turf, grass or a church parking lot.”

Cornell is coming off a convincing 33-0 victory over Monessen at West Allegheny High School.

Leechburg, meanwhile, defeated California, 28-7, to win its first playoff game since 1978.

While Leechburg has been on the upswing for several seasons, it’s also impressive that Cornell started from scratch. The school, a 1971 merger of Coraopolis and Neville Island high schools, shut down its program from 2012-15 because of low turnout and sent its remaining players to Quaker Valley.

But the regeneration begun in 2016 under Dawson has put excitement back into the community. The Raiders won their first playoff game in 2019 after eight straight opening-round losses. Clairton finally eliminated Cornell two years ago, but the Raiders returned with the victory last week.

“Our strength is our patience and resiliency,” Dawson said. “The kids have done a great job in buying in and staying the course. The support of the school administration has been a big thing.”

Leechburg’s story has been well-documented with first a winning season, then a playoff clinching, then getting home-field advantage for the first time before securing the first playoff victory in 43 seasons.

“I wanted the kids to enjoy it and stuff, but there was no celebrating for me,” said Blue Devils coach Randy Walters. “I’ve never been in this position before as a coach, and I want to make sure myself and my staff are doing everything we can to let these kids experience as much as they can.”

Walters did let on that he spent some time with former Leechburg players reminiscing about the glory days of the 1970s.

Things are going so well that the Blue Devils will welcome back tackle Brandon Lucas, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound sophomore who has been hurt and hasn’t played yet this year.

“He was projected to be a starter for us, and we had to move Jacob Reinke to tackle and Jake Heilman has come in and done a good job for us,” Walters said.

Leechburg quarterback Thomas Burke III leads Class A in passing with 1,944 yards, and Braylan Lovelace has 1,481 rushing yards. Eli Rich and Logan Kline have caught 31 passes each, and Tyler Foley has 28 catches.

Cornell is led by Sincere Kimbrough’s 790 passing yards and Raequan Troutman’s 497 rushing yards.

There was one other situation Leechburg had to deal with for the first time in many years: practice under the lights. The team rarely has played in the last 40 years after daylight savings time ended, so the coaches had to be instructed on how to turn on the stadium lights.

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