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Brick By Brick: How Bishop Canevin Built a Champion after Nearly Losing its Team



PITTSBURGH — The turnaround at Bishop Canevin was not easy. When Bishop Canevin head coach Rich Johnson was hired, the program was coming off a 1-9 season. His first season was surprisingly met by a worldwide pandemic that changed schedules, saw players transfer, and could have folded the entire football program.

“The school was ready to lose the program,” admitted Johnson of the turbulence he met when he was initially hired. “They were ready to fold, but two years later, we are walking away with a championship.”

It took one season to start the turnaround, and in 2021 Bishop Canevin proved its dominance by adding a WPIAL Championship to a 13-1 season, beating OLSH 42-7 in the Class-A title game at Heinz Field on Friday

The result is impressive in itself but speaks louder when you realize the climb they took, and how the program was able to turn around so fast.

“We say brick by brick,” coach Johnson said of his team motto to ignite the turnaround. “Every day we build. It’s all little things, it’s being on time to class, its honor roll — 65% of the team is performing at a high academic level — that’s a brick. We do our service in the community, that’s a brick. Everything we do represents our team, our community, and our school, and today all of the bricks came together.”

The perfect example of the brick by brick mentality paying off is senior Keshawn Harris. Harris was an All-Conference performer at running back during his sophomore season, but the team was not winning games. The new coaching staff told Harris they wanted him to focus more on defense while scaling back his offensive snaps. A talented sophomore with new coaching asking for a huge change out of him could have easily resulted in a transfer, but Harris, like his teammates bought into what coach Johnson was preaching. Now, he has become one of the best linebackers in Class-A football, and he was seen chasing down runners for loss all day at Heinz Field. He also got some work on offense, scoring the team’s first touchdown in a win that gave Bishop Canevin their first WPIAL title since 1990. That is a brick.

“From 1-9, three different coaches in two years to a WPIAL championship, I’m just so happy right now,” exclaimed Harris.

All of the bricks came together and came towered over OLSH in what became a dominant win. It did take time, though, and OLSH scored first before Bishop Canevin put on 42 unanswered.

The game changed when Bishop Canevin drove down the six-yard line but still decided to go for it. They were stuffed short, but they pinned OLSH deep.

“We are always going to be aggressive and trust our defense,” said Johnson of going for it, and letting his defense deal with the consequence of the turnover.

The defense responded with a three-and-out. That’s a brick.

Then, OLSH had a bad snap on the punt, and Bishop Canevin got the ball right back at the eight. That’s a brick.

Harris broke a few tackles and scored on the next play, that’s a brick.

All of the sudden the game was tied, and Bishop Canevin had a foundation to stand on.

“I was starstruck myself, I am a big Mike Tomlin fan, so I could not expect less from my guys,” Johnson laughed when discussing the slow start being attributed to the environment, and the moment they were in. “So, I said, let’s weather the first storm and after that, we can go. Regardless of the media and lights, it is still football”

Once they got going, they went hard. Bishop Canevin got another stop and took over at their own 33-yard line. That is when Xavier Nelson went 67-yards on a screen pass all the way to the house. The very next play, he jumped an out route and house that. A 46-yard touchdown on defense gave him two touchdowns just 17 seconds apart.

“I saw him throw that out,” described Nelson. “I tried to bait the quarterback, and broke a tackle.”

Nelson was not quite done. Four minutes later he caught a curl route, turned, and housed that for a 36-yard touchdown.

“He’s done it before,” stated Johnson who was not surprised that Nelson had such a dominant day. “Those are the things we expect from our players. We preach we are a team, and a family, so every day it might be someone else’s number that is called.”

Nelson was stacking bricks, and Bishop Canevin had the momentum to pin their ears back and attack in the second half. They shut out OLSH in the second half and allowed just 44 yards in the final two quarters.

“We felt like if we could get ahead with our speed and our defense make it tough to come from behind.” said Johnson.

Bishop Canevin finished with four interceptions on the game.

“I would not want to play our defense, we have too much speed,” Johnson added.

Johnson is laughing and all smiles after a blowout, but he knows what his players went through, and how hard they worked to get to this point. He knows that his defense has all that speed because of the work they put in, and that they can attack with relentless pursuit because they have been there already.

“When you see these kids out there running early in the morning, and they’re saying ‘coach I’m giving everything I got,’ but if you want to be champions it takes another level,” said Johnson on how hard he pushed his players. “They all believed and bought into what we are doing. I could not be more proud of them.”

The unbelievable turnaround led to a blowout win in Pittsburgh’s largest venue, but Bishop Canevin now moves from the WPIAL to the PIAA bracket next week. They will face Redbank Valley in the PIAA 1A semifinals next week at a date and time to be determined.

“We’re not going to put in extra time or preparation or anything like that because when you start doing too much you make mistakes,” admitted Johnson. “We know we are going to give it everything we got, and win or lose, we know that if we gave it everything that is all we can do.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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