Penn Hills, Pa.– There was no doubt that the Penn Hills football players had a little extra motivation going into their 33-28 win over Pine-Richland. Across the field they saw Jon LeDonne, their head coach last season, and the four prior to that. As a thank you for the memories, the Indians sent his new team home with an L.
“I think we came out with a little more energy, a little bump,” admitted Penn Hills star quarterback Julian Dugger. “We wanted to prove a point, it was a statement game.”
While Penn Hills made its statement known to the other side of the field, most people in the Penn Hills area are quick to admit that the football program is in much better shape the way LeDonne left it, than it was when he inherited it.
In the five seasons prior to LeDonne, Penn Hills went 22-27, and then went 46-15 in the five years that he took over, including a state championship. Penn Hills reminded LeDonne that he had started to produce a well-oiled machine and a team that could be consistently good for a while.
What is noteworthy about the Penn Hills roster is how few seniors they currently have in impact roles. Julian Dugger is a junior, as is his backfield mate Amir Key.
The duo was unstoppable on the ground. Dugger had 106 yards on 13 rushes, most of it coming in the first half. Key added 216 yards and three touchdowns, his third being a 71-yard explosion that essentially put the game away.
“I saw the opening and I just took it, that is all I can say” Key added.
On top of the dynamic duo is a new addition to the backfield, Naytel Mitchell who provides the added splash that this team needs. Mitchell is having a breakout season during his sophomore year, meaning that the ceiling will only get higher for this young athlete.
“Naytel is our emotional leader, he is our vocal leader,” said head coach Charles Morris, which Is strong praise for a sophomore. “If people do not know about him now they are going to see. He is young and going to do nothing but keep growing. Naytel is a hell of a player, and there is nothing but growth coming from him.”
While Mitchell is the backup runner in a loaded backfield, he is the leader as the middle linebacker on defense. You can see his emotion as he plays with a speed faster than others and a fearless pursuit in the box that mirrors a fireman running into a burning house. His defensive impact was noteworthy.
Mitchell added three runs of over 10 yards and had a 26-yard touchdown that capped off a statement drive and gave Penn Hills a 27-21 lead.
“Best backfield in the (WPIAL),” Dugger said proudly of Mitchell and Key. “Those two are amazing, I don’t know what we would do without them.”
While Dugger was quick to praise Mitchell and Key, Key noted that the athletic prowess of his star quarterback also freezes the linebackers, which clears lanes for the two backs. Dugger suffered an ankle injury right before halftime, and you could tell that he was impacted by it during the second half.
“We couldn’t open up the offense as far as we wanted to passing the football,” admitted Morris.”But we knew coming into the game that certain ways that (Pine-Richland) lined up gave us certain runs so we expected to run the ball more, but not as much as we did.”
Still, when Dugger was challenged to pass in a tight game, he made enough completions to keep drives moving. He found D’Andre Cochran, a junior, in the second half to set up a scoring drive. Juniors Cam Thomas and Santana Levy-Johnson were involved in the passing game as well, and Levy-Johnson also worked into the run game. The team has a star receiver in senior Raion Strader, but the core of these skill players are juniors, with the addition of Mitchell the sophomore.
Even the offensive line has youth. Carter Lance, the star nose tackle and center for the team is a junior. Lance had multiple tackles for loss and was the big reason the team came out and ran the football like they did.
“We got some dogs upfront, my boy Carter Lance is a dog,” said Dugger proudly.
This is not to take away from Morris, who did a great job outcoaching LeDonne and knew that a run-heavy approach, and challenging his offensive line were the right buttons to press. He just found the program in a better spot thanks to LeDonne, and he is now in a spot where he has to keep things churning, rather than institutionally change what was going on. This could lead to the program taking a step forward under Morris when many thought the loss of LeDonne would lead to a step back.
Penn Hills starting the season 2-1 with an impressive victory over Pine-Richland gives hope of what this team can be this season. However, when you see Dugger, Key, Cochran, Lance, Thomas, and Levy-Jordan leading the way as juniors, then emotional leader, and a potential star in the making Naytel Mitchell as a sophomore you have to wonder how much of a force this program can continue to be in the coming years as well.