WPIAL championship rematch with fearsome Central Catholic line awaits Pine-Richland

Friday, November 15, 2019 | 2:17 PM

One lineman is the talented nephew of an NFL superstar. One is 6-foot-5 and committed to North Carolina. The two others are gigantic twin brothers with more than 20 scholarship offers.

Combined, the Central Catholic defensive linemen have formed a fearsome front four.

“This group is special because of their athleticism and size but also the knowledge of football that these kids have grasped,” Vikings defensive coordinator Dave Fleming said. “Some kids play football and they’re good at it. These guys are good football players and they know what they’re doing.”

The foursome includes junior Elliot Donald (6-foot-2, 230 pounds), and seniors A.J. Beatty (6-5, 260), A’maar Allen (6-3, 260) and A’meer Allen (6-4, 280). Donald, a major Division I recruit, is the nephew of former Pitt star Aaron Donald.

Their knack for disrupting offenses is one reason Central Catholic is headed back to Heinz Field for the sixth time in seven years.

Top-seeded Central Catholic (10-1) plays second-seeded Pine-Richland (10-1) in the WPIAL Class 6A championship at 8 p.m. Saturday. The Vikings defense hasn’t allowed more than 14 points to any opponent this season.

“The way that our front four gets off the ball, it’s stunning those guys,” Fleming said. “I don’t think they’re used to the explosion that these guys are getting off the ball with. I think it gives teams fits.”

Fleming doesn’t like to compare lineups year to year, but this is the team’s best defensive line at least since Notre Dame’s Kurt Hinish and Pitt’s David Green were harrassing quarterbacks in 2016, a WPIAL championship season for the Vikings.

“I don’t really like to rank them because there are some really special groups,” Fleming said. “But this group is special.”

Blocking this year’s foursome tops Pine-Richland’s priorities for Saturday. The defensive line caused the Rams trouble in Week 5 when Central Catholic won 29-7.

In fact, that loss convinced Pine-Richland coaches to overhaul their offensive line.

“We weren’t able to block them,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “If we haven’t fixed that, it probably will be a similar outcome.”

The Rams took the unusual steps of replacing two starting linemen midseason and asking a third to shift positions, Kasperowicz said, calling that loss “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“It’s easy when you’re in shorts in the summertime to say this group looks good, until you get out there and play some good competition,” he said. “Some of those weaknesses didn’t get exposed until Central.

“We’ve done some things to change,” he added. “We’ve gotten better. We’ve moved some people around since then. We’re excited to get out there and see what happens.”

The offensive line was an area of strength last season. But Pine-Richland graduated all five starting linemen — including two Division I recruits — after winning the WPIAL title in 2018, so the position was a work in progress.

The Rams now start juniors Harrison Hayes (6-3, 260), Miguel Jackson (6-2, 245), Spencer King (5-10, 250) and John Swisher (6-0, 245) with senior Ethan O’Neil (6-0, 250) at center. Jackson and King are the newcomers as two-way starters.

“The longer they can work together and in concert with one another the better off they’ll be,” Kasperowicz said. “That’s why they’re having some success now because they’ve been together for about five or six weeks.”

That battle upfront could decide which team wins again on Saturday.

Combined, Pine-Richland and Central Catholic have won the past seven titles in the WPIAL’s largest classification. Pine-Richland won WPIAL titles in 2014, ’17 and ’18. Central Catholic won in 2013, ’15 and ’16.

They met twice head-to-head at Heinz Field. Pine-Richland won both, 42-7 in 2017 and 21-13 in 2014.

“It’s a great rivalry,” Kasperowicz said. “It’s very much respected on both sides. It’s very healthy. It’s very good. It’s very intense.”

Central Catholic won in Week 5 by controlling the line on both sides of the football. Running back Eddy Tillman rushed for 185 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries. His touchdown runs covered 12, 5 and 43 yards.

In contrast, Pine-Richland as a team rushed for 19.

After a scoreless first quarter, Central Catholic score three times in the second to lead 20-7 at halftime.

Pine-Richland quarterback Cole Spencer completed 14 of 33 pass attempts for 179 yards. He scored the Rams’ lone touchdown on a 2-yard run.

That Week 5 loss was the only game this season that Spencer didn’t have a touchdown pass. He’s thrown 21 TDs in the five games since, giving him 35 for the season.

“We’re excited to have another opportunity at them,” Kasperowicz said. “They beat us up pretty good early in the year. Any time you get a chance to right your wrongs, you’re excited about it.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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