PITTSBURGH — When Landon Alexander was just a boy, barely reaching Central Valley head coach Mark Lyons’ knee, he would stand at the chain-link fence at Central Valley Football Stadium to watch star Jordan Whitehead set records that wouldn’t be touched for years.
Alexander would go home and tell anyone who would listen that he wanted to be the next Jordan Whitehead. And yet, children across the country look up to and idolize high school stars — even stars that don’t go on to start for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl — but all of the hopeful optimism in the world doesn’t mean dreams will come true. Hard work and determination do.
The little boy who once wished — no, vowed — to be the next Jordan Whitehead culminated four years of blood, sweat and tears into a historic 217 rushing yards to not only help clinch the WPIAL Class 3-A title for the third season in a row or break Whitehead’s program rushing yards record. Alexander did it to become the Landon Alexander, not the next Jordan Whitehead.
“It just feels good,” Alexander said. “You just have a dream when you’re a little kid, you know, we’ve been playing since — all of us — have been playing since we were little kids. Six, seven, like coach Mark said, ever since we could hold a helmet on our heads.”
Lyons has literally watched Alexander grow up before his eyes, but while he lauds his star as a hard worker and workout warrior, it’s Alexander’s mental game that makes him stand out from perhaps anyone he’s ever coached.
“To me, what makes him unique is he comes off the field and he wants to get on that iPad and see what’s going on and dissect,” Lyons said. “He’s probably, you talk about the best and how many guys have come through and we’ve seen some great players come through, he thinks the game on a whole ‘nother level. His football IQ is just what sets him apart.”
While Alexander and the senior leadership group of Sean FitzSimmons, Matt Merritt, Bryce Wilson and Jack Bible have experienced the euphoria of the three-peat, sweeping little league back in the day, it’s a brand new feeling for Lyons. And one that’s still hard to explain.
“I’ve been in this a long time, and I started my career losing three straight back at Monaca, and I never thought to myself that I’d have this opportunity again,” Lyons said. “Here we are, standing here some 20, 30 years from [then].”
Lyons’ coaching career began with Monaca — which merged with Center Area to form Central Valley in 2009 — in 1996, and after a brief period of building a foundation, Lyons led Monaca to three consecutive WPIAL Class 1-A championship games between 1998-2000. However, he was unable to bring home a title.
21 years later, Lyons has led Central Valley to 25 straight wins — dating back to Dec. 7, 2019 — three straight WPIAL titles and two state playoff appearances. He wasn’t even sure if the impact of the accomplishment had really set in — senior Bryce Wilson was still somewhat in a sense of disbelief when looking back at his Central Valley career’s success — his players after the game, but he knows how special this group of young men really is.
“People talk about, ‘boy, what a great player, this guy’s a great player, this guy’s a super player,'” Lyons said. “To me, great players are guys who make players around them better. Everyone one of these guys up here on this podium have taken the guy beside them, and underclassmen, and elevated their game.”
One of those players was junior Jayvin Thompson, who was the Player of the Game despite Alexander’s record-breaking outing on the ground. Thompson caught two passes, taking both for touchdowns on strikes of 69 and 18 yards. However, it was his defensive prowess that really turned the game on its head. Thompson picked off North Catholic quarterback Joey Prentice four times in the first — racking up 127 yards in returns, which would have been more if a touchdown return hadn’t been negated by a holding call.
“[Central Valley is] just that good that if you make a mistake, you might survive one mistake, you’re not going to survive many more,” North Catholic head coach Patrick O’Shea said.
O’Shea and North Catholic watched film on Central Valley all week, of course, but even when you know what’s coming or what to expect, it’s nearly impossible to stop. O’Shea felt if the Trojans could withstand Central Valley’s blitz, they’d stand a chance. With Prentice forced into flinging balls dangerously into the Warriors’ secondary, the all-out defensive pressure was too much to withstand.
“We knew if it was even going to be close, we’d have to play nearly a perfect football game,” O’Shea said. “And we weren’t very close on that today.”
With Thompson lurking in the secondary, FitzSimmons made his presence a bit more well-known along the defensive line. The Pitt commit’s penchant for wrecking opposing offensive lines was on full display, racking up a handful of tackles for loss and sacks on the day. And his impact wasn’t limited to defensive contributions either.
“It’s always good to make a big impact, just do what I can to help the team,” FitzSimmons said. “Make big plays. And if that helps the team, that’s what I’m going to do. And all the things I did today helped the team, and we got the win.”
FitzSimmons and the whole offensive line paved the way for Alexander’s 217 rushing yards and 348 total yards on the ground against the North Catholic defense. A tone-setting unit at the offensive and defensive points of attack, their impact isn’t lost on Alexander.
“I tell [the offensive line] every play, every huddle,” Alexander said. “Before the game, like I can’t do this without y’all, honestly.”
While the offensive and defensive lines spearhead the attack on both sides of the ball, and Alexander is the ?, Central Valley’s success — like Lyon’s, Alexander’s and FitzSimmons’ own individual success — is the result of countless people working together.
“There’s an underclassman, and we have several, that these guys have put their arms around and said listen, if we’re going to do anything, it just can’t be them, it just can’t be a group of five seniors, eight seniors,” Lyons said. “We need everybody in that locker room.”
From Jack Bible making the most of his touches as the team’s top tight end, hauling in four balls for 70 yards and a touchdown against North Catholic, and Matt Merritt giving his all, 3-of-4 for 43 yards and two touchdowns on the day, despite suffering a knock during the game, the sacrifice, hard work and dedication of every player on Central Valley has resulted in yet another historic win.
“It always feels great,” FitzSimmons said. “It’s the third time we’ve won this, and the feeling gets better and better every time we win it.”
As a head coach — and coach in general — with decades of experience, Lyons has coached a lot of teams and mentored a lot of players, but this particular Central Valley is up there with the best of the best. And his current players — this senior class — is up there with the best of them. It’s a team built for the brightest lights.
“You don’t want to compare teams, but this team is up there,” Lyons said. “It is pretty special. They have their own identity. We’re winning football games in different fashions. We still play great defense. I think this team knows how to control the game with clock management. … I think this team right here is meant for late November, December football. With weather, I like to think we can play any style that we need to.”
While Central Valley will take a day or two to celebrate the WPIAL title, the journey is not complete. The Warriors will meet Central Martinsburg in the PIAA Class 3-A semifinals at a date and location yet to be determined, and the end goal is a state title clash in two weeks in Hershey, Pennsylvania against the winner of Neumann-Goretti and Wyomissing — the last team to hand the Warriors a loss.
So, yes, there’s still a lot of football yet to be played this winter. And you can bet Central Valley will be ready.