Young Penn Hills roster shows competitive fire during rebuilding year

Saturday, November 7, 2020 | 11:01 AM

Coach Jon LeDonne knew it was going to be a tough matchup when No. 7 Penn Hills faced No. 2 Gateway in the first round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs Oct. 30.

However, LeDonne was encouraged with how the young Indians competed against the Gators as they lost, 14-0.

The Indians defense kept Penn Hills (4-4, 4-1) in the game as they picked off Gateway’s Carsen Engleka twice and forced a fumble, as well.

With Gateway clinging to a 14-0 lead, Penn Hills’ Cameron Hopkins intercepted Engleka’s pass and returned it 26 yards to the Gateway 14.

Aided by a pass-interference call, Penn Hills moved to the Gateway 1. But the Gators defense held the Indians and stopped freshman quarterback Julian Dugger twice short of the goal line.

Before halftime, Penn Hills forced a fumble on a botched handoff in the Gateway backfield, and the Indians recovered at the Gateway 14. But they failed to take advantage, themselves fumbling the ball away, as Gateway took a two-touchdown lead into halftime.

“We had our opportunities,” LeDonne said. “We could’ve taken advantage of some of the times being in the red zone.

“Defensively, we played a tremendous game. We held an explosive offense to 14 points. Seven points came after we tried to steal a possession on a fake punt where the snap went over our heads. We didn’t execute offensively and get the ball in the end zone.”

The Indians finished with 123 yards rushing. Freshman running back Amir Key rushed for 73 yards, and Dugger rushed for 50 yards.

LeDonne knew he was going to go through some growing pains when handing the keys to the Penn Hills offense to a freshman. However, the core of the Indians offense for years to come got valuable experience.

Dugger finished the season with 930 yards passing with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Senior Noel Roach finished as Dugger’s top target as he collected 245 yards receiving and three touchdowns.

Key led the team in rushing with 267 yards and two touchdowns. Most of the yards came in the last three games after senior Dontae Pollard went down with a season-ending injury.

“They continued growth but still have a lot to learn,” LeDonne said. “Anytime you have ninth-graders playing in the varsity football game, they are gaining valuable experience.

“These guys should be playing on a ninth-grade or junior varsity team. They got thrown in the fire, and they competed. We know we have competitors, but the question is pushing them and educating them and getting them ready in all facets of the game.”

Even though the Indians made a deep run in the state playoffs a couple of seasons ago, LeDonne believes the program still has room to grow to be known as an elite program in the area.

“(Going) 4-4 in a normal year is a huge disappointment,” LeDonne said. “But considering who we lost to in Gateway, Pine-Richland, North Allegheny and Woodland Hills, those are teams that you’ve got to beat if you want to consider yourself as an elite program. We are working to compete with them consistently. As some of these younger kids mature, we will be in some of these competitive games.”


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