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In his fifth season with the Moon football program, coach Ryan Linn was looking for other ways to change the culture.
Linn – who is in his third year as the head coach – was looking for a way to give players more responsibility, which naturally led to the naming of captains.
The team elected six captains, one of which decided to not play football, leaving seniors Dante Clay, Logan Young, Dawson Snyder, Jamal Littlejohn and Brenden Luffey tasked with leading the team.
“This year, I couldn’t take the lack of leadership. Nobody knew how to lead, they were all going different directions. I knew we couldn’t do this, and we were going to go anywhere,” said Linn. “It’s helped build that camaraderie; they’ve taken ownership of it. So, I’m not always the one chirping at them. They are learning on the fly, they’re doing a pretty good job at it.”
“We never knew how to be a captain, we never had people show us how to do it, so we have to do it ourselves. It’s all a learning experience, but it’s awesome,” said Littlejohn.
The captains did captain-like things in the team’s 20-6 win over Upper St. Clair.
Clay missed last week’s win over Peters Township and appeared as though he was not going to play against the Panthers. Clay went through warmups in street clothes but was constantly stretching to see how he felt.
When the team ran through the inflatable helmet before the game, however, they were led by the quarterback. Clay finished with 86 rushing yards and 27 passing yards in the win.
Littlejohn scored the team’s first two touchdowns on the night and finished with 93 rushing yards in the win. The senior also recorded five tackles to lead the Tigers’ defense.
Snyder chipped in with 32 yards of offense and was huge on defense with an interception and a tackle. Snyder spent most of the night covering star receiver David Pantelis, who was limited to just 46 receiving yards on eight catches.
Young had two tackles and one catch while Luffey was the anchor of a defensive line that recorded three sacks, to bring their total to nine in the last two games.
The win improves the team’s record to 4-1 in the Allegheny Eight Conference and are one of three teams tied for the best record.
This is the best start for the Tigers since 2005, who have endured some lean years to get to this point. Moon was winless in 2008 and 2009 and have had only two winning seasons since 2005.
The fanbase felt ready for a winner Friday night as the students and community members stayed on the field well after the game talking to every player that hadn’t gone to the locker room.
Clay even came back out of the locker room to mingle with friends and family to celebrate earning a home playoff game.
“That’s huge, (at Moon) that’s almost unheard of, let alone (making it to) playoffs. For us to be able to do this for us and the fans, it’s almost a high school dream come true,” said Clay.
NOTES FROM THE PRESS BOX
Another week, another top quarterback and wide receiver duo fell to Moon’s defense.
Last week, Peters Township quarterback Logan Pfeuffer threw for just 74 yards while start receiver Josh Casillie had just two catches for three yards.
Upper St. Clair presented an even tougher challenge with David Pantellis – who leads the WPIAL in receiving yards – and quarterback Ethan Dahlem who entered the night third in the WPIAL in passing yards.
While the names changed the result was the same as Dahlem finished 14-21 for 102 yards and two interceptions while Pantellis pulled in eight grabs for just 46 yards.
Like last week, the Moon defensive line created a lot of havoc, allowing the secondary the freedom to make plays.
The Tigers recorded three sacks to go along with last week’s six.
The difference between games is the scrambling ability of Dahlem. The quarterback is the Panthers’ leading rusher and the Tigers knew that coming in.
“Keep him in the pocket, don’t let him get out of the pocket,” said defensive lineman Ben Bladel. “(Defensive ends) had to set the edge, come at him from the outside. We ran some linebacker blitzes but it was up to us to keep him contained.”
Upper St. Clair looked to get Pantellis the ball several different ways with sweeps and quick screen passes, but the Moon defense was up to the task.
“We wanted to get him his touches, but credit to them they did a nice job of getting off blocks and making tackles in the open field,” said Upper St. Clair coach Mike Junko.
The Tigers grabbed two interceptions in the win, one each from Dawson Snyder and Jeremiah Dean.
Snyder’s interception was on a broken play where Dahlem threw a deep pass to a receiver who ran a different route, leaving Snyder alone to make a nice over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone.
Dean’s interception came on a quick slant where the sophomore jumped the route and made an impressive catch.
“The defensive line creating that pressure, allowing those kids in the back to make plays,” said Linn. “That one Jeremiah made tonight was him just reading it and making a play, but those guys up front creating so much pressure by themselves, it makes it hard for (opposing quarterbacks) to throw the ball.”
With the status of quarterback Dante Clay unsure even during warmups, the Moon offense was forced to be creative.
Clay toughed it out through a hip injury and led his team to victory, but four different quarterbacks saw snaps for the Tigers in the win including backup quarterback Tyler McGowan and running backs Jeremiah Dean and Jamal Littlejohn.
The wildcat was a weapon all night for Moon as Littlejohn and Dean combined for 117 rushing yards to go along with Clay’s 86.
“It’s awesome, especially behind this offensive line,” said Littlejohn. “They controlled the line of scrimmage all night, the holes were opening up, the line keeps getting better and better.”
“We’ve been building on (the wildcat) since the summer,” said coach Ryan Linn. “I’ve never had tight ends, this year we have four body-type tight end kids. We have some fullbacks now, they kind of morphed into this running offense.
“Now that we have a quarterback who can also run the ball, it creates a lot of the is he going to throw it or run it type of deals. Dante is one of those kids who can take it to the house anytime, he has that type of ability.”
Moon’s offense isn’t going to blow anybody away.
The athletes are good and the line is solid, but Moon needs to run a lot of plays and win the time of possession battle and play differential in order to win games.
And if they win the turnover battle as well, they’re almost unbeatable.
Moon forced three turnovers in Friday’s win (two interceptions and a fumble recovery), the first interception leading to a touchdown that put the Tigers up 13-6.
The Tigers also capitalized on the field position battle when they had the chance.
A Moon punt in the third quarter took a great bounce and pinned the Panthers inside their 15-yard line. A three-and-out led to an Upper St. Clair punt that traveled just 13 yards and gave the Tigers the ball at the 30.
A few plays later Jeremiah Dean scored from six yards out, increasing the score to 20-6.
“That’s been the M.O. the last couple of weeks,” said Linn. “Every short field, we score. Pick six, some short fields on bad punts and turnovers, we have the mindset if we get a turnover we’re going to put the ball in the end zone. We’ve done it lately, it’s something in the past we haven’t done.”