The Pittsburgh Sports Now Week 1 Game of the Week is Latrobe vs. Penn Hills. Our 2018 High School Football coverage is sponsored by Dunkin‘ Donuts, who proudly support high school football in Western Pennsylvania.
The Greater Latrobe Wildcats and Penn Hills Indians could not have started their seasons off any differently. As the two enter Week One of WPIAL play, season expectations come from entirely different starting points, as well. However, when Penn Hills hosts Greater Latrobe at Yuhas-McGinley Stadium, it will feature two teams who are looking to establish the same thing in this early season: consistency.
For Penn Hills, the team has high expectations. After an eight-win season in his first year as head coach, Jon LeDonne has eyes on taking a bigger step forward and competing deep into the state playoffs. Ranked near the top of the class in the WPIAL to start the year, the Indians traveled to open their season against a formidable yet unfamiliar foe in Steubenville. In a ruckus environment that featured nearly 10,000 fans, Penn Hills staved off the talented Ohio school, 21-14 behind three touchdown passes from senior quarterback Hollis Mathis.
“It was a big thing to go on the road, into an environment that we are unfamiliar with,” LeDonne said. “They competed for the whole game, they never gave up, and fought hard … You need to do that once you get deep into the playoffs, so I wanted to get them into that mindset early into the year.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Latrobe is looking to find its footing and establish itself as a team poised to take a step forward. After starting 2-25 over his first three years at Latrobe, head coach Jason Marucco saw serious progress in a 4-6 2017 season. While the idea is to build off that, Latrobe hit a major bump in the road, falling to non-conference rival Derry, 45-15.
Despite Penn Hills showing poise for a deep season run, and Latrobe looking to grow from four wins, both teams learned similar lessons in their first game and will seek to establish more consistency in their play as the season moves on.
For Latrobe, the team is looking to avoid the snowball effect. One of the biggest takeaways Marucco had from his team in their jump last year was not being overwhelmed within the game and taking the play-by-play approach.
“Against good teams in tight ball games, we set ourselves up for a chance to win, and I think we learned in those games that there are plays you have to make to win them,” Marucco said. “However, at the same time, you have to focus on the next play.”
Avoiding being caught up in the momentum swings of a football game is indeed tough in high school, especially for a team like Latrobe that has not seen those types of environments or success in recent years. Their ability to get caught up in one or two important plays cost the team in its 2018 season debut in the eyes of Marucco.
“We put ourselves in a hole early but responded well at halftime,” he said. “We came back over the next 14 minutes and played by far our best football of the night. Then we gave up a kickoff return touchdown that kind of phased us a bit.”
Latrobe never recovered from the momentum-bursting return.
“We have to keep plugging away and try to get the momentum back, and we showed that we still need to learn to overcome every situation, whatever it is,” Marucco added.
While the team was unable to handle adversity last week, Marucco was quick to note that it was Week Zero and that it was a good learning moment for the team to take a giant leap forward in Week One with meaningful WPIAL games on the docket. Against a talented group with preseason hype in Penn Hills, Marucco is looking for a complete game in all three phases. He is looking for the team that dug deep last year but struggled to show it last week.
“Anytime you go from Week Zero to Week One you expect significant improvement,” he said. “Without a doubt, we want to see complete improvement in all three phases, but we also want to see resolve. We want to see a team where nothing phases them on every play, and we are trying to win every play, but are ready for the next play.”
While Latrobe is looking to handle adversity, Penn Hills stared adversity in the face and survived last Friday. However, LeDonne and Marucco are drilling a similar mindset in their team.
“The biggest thing for us moving forward is zero mistakes,” LeDonne said, noting that would be his loudest message of the week.
“We are just trying to do what we do, get better and perfect what we did last week. Play our game, play our scheme, and eliminate mental mistakes.” he added.
If Penn Hills can find that zero-mistake football this early into the season, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
TOP RECRUITS SPOTLIGHT
One of the reasons in which Penn Hills has such lofty expectations entering the season is the list of talent the team has. As of now, Penn Hills has five current Seniors who have received recruiting attention.
–Daequan Hardy (Top offers: Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska): Hardy may have the most attention on him of any of the players on Friday. Hardy is a wide receiver/defensive back who put up two huge touchdowns in Penn Hills’ season opener against Steubenville. However, most schools prize him as a defensive back in college.
LeDonne: “He is very quick and explosive. A very smart player, he just sees the field so well.”
–Dante Cephas (Top offers: Bowling Green, Toledo, Kent State): Cephas is seeing a lot of attention from MAC schools to be a potential big target in the passing game at the next level. LeDonne likes his ability to be utilized all over the field.
LeDonne: “Cephas is a long receiver with range. He can take the top off, but can make plays over the middle too.”
–Hollis Mathis (Howard commit): The teams starting quarterback has verbally committed to play at Howard next season. LeDonne was quick to share strong thoughts on Mathis and feels as though he has been underrated across the state.
LeDonne: “I feel like (Hollis) is the best quarterback in the state. Definitely thought he should have got more interest at the Division One level but Howard got a steal in him. He is going to fit what they do both academically and athletically.”
–Terry Smith (Howard commit): Mathis will be attending Howard in a package deal with his running back Terry Smith. While Smith was not effective in the season opener against Steubenville, Penn Hills is very excited about the dynamic of Smith next to Mathis in the backfield.
LeDonne: “For a powerful running back, he has great footwork and explosion. He has awesome vision in the hole, and I am expecting big things this year.”
–Corey Thomas (Top offers: Indiana, Toledo, Buffalo, Bowling Green): While Penn Hills brings back their big four, they also added Corey Thomas, a transfer from Pittsburgh Central Catholic into the mix. Thomas is a big framed wide receiver/ safety who is receiving some Division One attention at the safety position.
LeDonne: “He is a field captain on defense. Big body, big frame good hands, we are excited about what he can bring.”
Junior Indians wide receiver and safety Akeem Snell also has an offer to Howard. With an overwhelming amount of talent on Penn Hills roster, it is no surprise they entered the season with higher expectations than Latrobe. However, Latrobe is bringing in a touted recruit in his own right on Friday.
–Trent Holler (Top offers: Pitt, West Virginia, Cincinnati, East Carolina): Holler is a starting center and defensive end who is getting attention to play center at the next level. Aside from his play on the field, his head coach is impressed with the tone that Holler sets amongst his peers with his play.
Marucco: “Trent has started every game on both sides for the past three years. Minus his talent he is the captain of the team, he rarely comes off of the field, and plays his tail off for 48 minutes. His ability trickles down to the rest of the team.”
Holler will have a chance to show his talents off against some of the best competition he will see all season on Friday night.