Westmoreland H.S. football notebook: Leechburg impresses with win over GCC

Saturday, September 12, 2020 | 5:53 PM

If there was a local score that turned heads on the opening night of the high school football season, it was probably this one:

Leechburg 55, Greensburg Central Catholic 37.

Sure, it was the highest-scoring game in the state, but it also was a big upset.

GCC came into the season ranked No. 3 in Class A — ahead of Jeannette — and looked like it would be a handful for opponents in the Class A Eastern Conference.

But Leechburg, which gave the Centurions all they could handle last season before falling 42-41, wasn’t having it.

Suddenly, GCC is reeling after the upset loss.

The Centurions were ravaged by penalties but could not make defensive stops. They were not surprised by Leechburg’s effort, or the team’s “Air Raid” offense under new coach Randy Walters.

It was a 21-21 game in the second quarter. The first quarter was scoreless,

“The penalties were mostly legit,” GCC coach Bret Colbert said. “I never blame the refs. I don’t know if stunned is the word. They were good last year and are better this year. They’ve got some guys that can run and a tough quarterback who can run and throw.”

Leechburg has the longest playoff drought in the WPIAL at 31 years. Southmoreland held that dubious distinction until last year when it qualified for the first time since 1979.

GCC is hoping to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference but will have to overcome the early misfire.

“We didn’t run an offensive play for what seemed like a half-hour,” Colbert said. “If we don’t have the penalties, it’s a different game. We’ll correct the mental and physical mistakes and get ready for Imani (Christian next week).”

Amari Mack was a bright spot for GCC with back-to-back kickoff return touchdowns of 88 and 85 yards. He also caught a 54-yard scoring pass from David Altimore.

Sophomore Braylan Lovelace ran for 128 yards and three touchdowns and added six catches for 128 yards for Leechburg, which intercepted three passes.

“He’s 14”

Jeannette started a ninth grader at quarterback Friday night, the first time that has happened in the storied history of the WPIAL’s most winning program.

Brad Birch looked poised under pressure and continually escaped a pass rush from Clairton, the No. 1 team in the state. Birch completed 21 of 28 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns, two to senior James Sanders, who was the Jayhawks’ quarterback last season and threw for more than 1,300 yards.

It was a debut that had people talking after the game.

“He didn’t take a big step forward. He took a giant leap,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said of Birch. “He made some nice throws. He has an edge to him. He does things juniors and seniors don’t do.”

Clairton found a rhythm in its rushing attack in the second half — senior Dontae Sanders ran for 209 yards and three TDs — and the Bears toppled No. 4 Jeannette, 34-28.

Jeannette had not lost a home opener in 26 years or a season opener in 23 years, and it had an 18-game home win streak halted.

But the strong-armed Birch (6-foot, 180 pounds) was a bright spot.

“You can tell he understands the game,” Clairton coach Wayne Wade said. “He makes the reads, moves well and can throw it. He’s 14. We’re going to have our hands full with him in the coming years.”

James Sanders had eight catches for 152 yards and two scores.

Jeannette nearly rallied after falling behind 34-21. Birch found sophomore Noah Sanders for a 38-yard gain and then connected with senior Toby Cline for a 20-yard score to close the gap late.

“The No. 1 thing that hurt us was (14 penalties),” Hall said. “We got a little flat. But our kids battled and left it all out on the field.”

With no junior high season last year at Jeannette, Birch played for Woodland Hills’ youth program. He has lived in Jeannette his entire life.

Stuck on 699

Greensburg Salem will have to wait to get its 700th win. The Golden Lions fell to Plum, 36-13, Friday at Offutt Field

Reed Martin scored three touchdowns, including a 92-yard kickoff return, to lead the Mustangs. The Golden Lions scored first on a 50-yard bomb from new quarterback Hayden Teska to Cody Rubrecht but trailed 36-6 after three quarters.

Greensburg Salem hosts Knoch next week. Knoch lost to Highlands, 39-7, in its Class 4A Greater Allegheny Conference opener.

Sweeney wins opener

Former Derry coach Tim Sweeney is off to a fast start at Baldwin, where he landed after leaving his alma mater last year.

Baldwin defeated Hollidaysburg, 27-7, in a nonconference game. The Highlanders were supposed to play Mt. Lebanon, but that program suspended activities because of covid-19.

BVA impresses

Junior Devin Whitlock ran for 239 yards to pace Belle Vernon to a 20-0 win over Class 4A No. 2 McKeesport on Friday. Belle Vernon was just as impressive defensively, handing the Tigers, who played in Class 5A last season, their first shutout loss since 2014 (28-0 vs. Penn-Trafford).

A pair of middle linebackers helped stuff the Tigers’ triple-option attack.

Rising Cole Weightman finished with 15 tackles, and teammate Jack Bryer added 14 for Belle Vernon, the WPIAL runner-up last season.

McKeesport coach Matt Miller said, “They kicked our butts.”

Big-play Warriors

Penn-Trafford stacked up big play after big play in its 48-14 win over Latrobe.

Four scoring plays covered 60 or more yards. Chase Vecchio had a 67-yard reception from Ethan Carr, who threw for three scores, Cade Yacamelli had a 75-yard scoring run, Chris Popovich caught a 63-yard TD pass, and Brad Ford scored on a 99-yard run.

Ford’s score was the longest in Penn-Trafford history, besting Chris Schneider’s 98-yard run in 1993. That game was the first for former Warriors star quarterback Tony Zimmerman.

Penn-Trafford will travel to play No. 3 Peters Township next week. Peters has knocked the Warriors out of the playoffs the last two years.

Cougars roll

Led by senior running back Gamal Marballie, who played quarterback last season but ran for 256 yards in his move to the backfield, Yough opened with a thorough, 29-6 win at home over Chartiers-Houston.

Tristan Waldier returned from injury to play quarterback again and threw for three scores, including two to his brother, C.J.

Yough had not won a season opener since 2016.

He said it

“If we’re on different sides of the bracket for the playoffs, we’ll probably see them down at the big house.” — Clairton coach Wayne Wade on possibly playing Jeannette again.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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