Gorman: A magical season for Neshannock football team
Before the last game in a season of surprising firsts, Neshannock heard a speech from a senior who lost his starting spot amid a starring role.
Since giving a pre-meal blessing in training camp that left the Lancers in tears and their coach speechless, Antonio Blundo gets the stage before every game.
Blundo asked for the Lord's blessing then gave a history lesson. He talked to his teammates about the reign of the Roman Empire, comparing it to the dominance of Neshannock's next opponent, and promised to launch a “full-blown attack.”
“His pregame speeches are the most inspiring things ever,” Neshannock junior quarterback Ernie Burkes said. “After his speeches, you feel like you can beat any team in the world.”
Well, almost any team.
Neshannock drew the short straw of the WPIAL Class A semifinalists. The Lancers landed on the same side of the bracket as Clairton, which owns the nation's longest win streak and was on track to tie Central Bucks West's state record of 59 consecutive victories.
These were long odds for the Lancers. Clairton had won 44 WPIAL playoff games, nine WPIAL Class A championships — including the past four — and three consecutive PIAA titles.
Neshannock, located just outside New Castle in Lawrence County, had endured a 28-game losing streak from 2000-02 and made the playoffs only once in the previous 15 years.
Before this run, Neshannock had never won a playoff game.
First-year coach Fred Mozzocio wasn't aware of that when he took the job. He played for the legendary Lindy Lauro at New Castle in the 1980s and told the Lancers to expect victory.
“It's an honor to be here in the semifinals and be mentioned in the same breath as some of your traditional powers,” Mozzocio said. “That's where we aspire to be as a program, not just this year but in coming years. I told them from Day One, ‘To go 4-5 or 3-7 is not what I'm here for. We're here to win championships. If you're not, leave the room.' That's the way Lindy Lauro brought us up.”
That message was welcomed by members of Neshannock's two-time defending WPIAL Class A baseball champions: Burkes, John Conglose, Mike Sanflippo and Alex Welker.
“Just having that championship motive helped us,” Burkes said. “We knew the work ethic it took to win playoff games. That carried over into football. Our goal when we wake up every Friday morning is to win.”
Mozzocio also switched to a spread offense, moving Sanflippo to receiver and Burkes to quarterback, and the Lancers averaged 39.4 points a game.
Twice, the Lancers won big games in the final minute. They rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat Sto-Rox on an 8-yard end-around by Welker with 17.9 seconds remaining for a 35-34 victory. Against Monessen in the quarterfinals, Burkes completed a fourth-and-10 pass to Congolose for 19 yards to set up his 1-yard scoring run with four seconds left for a 24-21 victory.
“These kids are unselfish,” Mozzocio said. “They don't care who's getting the touches as long as we're winning.”
No one represents that attitude better than Blundo, who played the lead in the school musical, “No, No, Nanette.” Losing his cornerback job in Week 9 didn't diminish Blundo's enthusiasm for the Lancers' success.
“Now, he goes on the scout team and plays every play like it's the Super Bowl against the first-team defense,” Mozzocio said. “No pouting. No questioning the coaches why he's not the starter anymore. He's all about the team. Stories like that, you don't hear about.”
Blundo was too busy reveling in Neshannock's magical season, which ended with a 37-7 loss to Clairton Friday night, one game short of the WPIAL finals at Heinz Field.
“We're giving people in Neshannock something they haven't seen in the past 30 years,” Blundo said. “I really didn't expect anything like this to happen, but it did.”
They might not be world-beaters, but this will go down as the season the Lancers let it be known they won't accept losing.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.