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MONROEVILLE, Pa. — For a team with the kind of proud tradition of championship football that Penn Hills possesses, there aren’t usually a lot of positives to be taken away from a first-round playoff exit, as the Indians suffered in Friday’s 14-0 loss to Gateway.
But as with most things in 2020, nothing is usual. Penn Hills played a relatively young team all season. Heading into Friday’s postseason meeting with the neighboring Gators, a handful of injuries forced an even younger-than-usual Penn Hills squad into action.
Freshman quarterback Julian Dugger was joined in the starting backfield by fellow freshman Amir Key, and they finished as the two Penn Hills leaders in yardage, with Key going for 73 yards — all in the first half — and Dugger contributing a combined 74 through the ground and air.
But they also contributed to the zero on the Penn Hills side of the scoreboard, with both youngsters turning the ball over in the red zone.
“It’s just young pups, you know?” Penn Hills head coach Jon LeDonne said. “We preach taking care of the football, we get down in there and throw an interception instead of getting three points, maybe a little momentum swing. You second guess some play calling when we get down there on fourth and goal from the one that can’t punch it in. You know, those are big plays in the games and you know, more mature teams make those points.”
But despite Penn Hills’ lack of success in the red zone, there were a lot of positives to be taken away from the battle with the Gators. They were able to move the ball, particularly with Key on the ground in the first half, and yielded just one long scoring drive all evening.
“We moved the ball well, we just didn’t finish drives and holding a team like Gateway with so many athletes to 14 points, you know, you don’t like to take moral victories, but maybe a little moral victory going into the offseason,” LeDonne said.
That offseason will be a crucial one. Playing with a young squad means growing pains in the short term, but it also means that the Indians will be returning most of the unit that took the field on Friday.
“Yeah, you know, anytime you’re missing, five senior starters on a team going into the playoffs, you know, next guy up is a freshman, you’re opening their eyes like, wow, what are we gonna do?” LeDonne said. “Those guys stepped up and made some plays. We got dinged up a little bit. And you know, just looking to grow from that.”
The Penn Hills players that were part of the 2018 state championship team are just about all gone, as only those that were true freshman from that squad will return for 2021, but the lessons they’ve passed on can be crucial for the Indians getting back into a position to realize their championship aspirations.
“One thing is that the younger guys got to see physical Penn hills football,” LeDonne said. “That was a very physical game and guys were coming onto the field on both sides limping and hurting and fighting through stuff so they got to see how you got to dig deeper a little bit. And that’s what this senior class taught the younger guys for sure.”