Neshannock in unchartered territory in playoffs
When Fred Mozzocio took over as head football coach at Neshannock High School last year, he knew he had a big job in front of him.
After all, the Lancers had only two winning seasons in the last decade (5-4 in 2011 and 6-4 in 2004) and had only played in one playoff game in that span, a 41-3 shellacking at the hands of Seton-La Salle back in ‘04.
“The school had pretty much been the joke of Lawrence County,” Mozzocio said. “When we came in, the first thing we had to do was change the mindset around here.”
Apparently, Mozzocio and his staff were successful in doing so in quick fashion. Not only did the Lancers finish in a three-way tie for first place with Rochester and Sto-Rox in the rugged Big Seven Conference, but last week in the first round of the WPIAL Class A playoffs against Jefferson-Morgan, Neshannock rolled to a 42-14 win.
The victory was the first playoff win in the school's long history.
“It's been a really fun ride this first year,” Mozzocio said. “The community is excited. The kids are excited. There's a feeling around here that they never had before in football.”
But how did Mozzocio turn around the Lancers so quickly?
“It was a lot of hard work from the very first day,” he said. “The first thing we did way back in January when we met with the kids was try to change the attitude around here. I pulled them together and told them they look a lot like everyone else in the WPIAL. They have the same bodies and same work ethic. We pounded that in them every day and they have bought into what we were preaching.” And when the Lancers (9-1) take on Monessen (9-1) in a Class A quarterfinal game 7:30 p.m. Friday night at Chartiers-Houston, Mozzocio will bring a team in that won't be afraid and won't be in awe.
“We talked to the kids about being good enough to go up against the Rochesters, Sto Rox's, Clairtons and Monessens,” he said. “We want to compete. We told the players they are good enough to compete.”
So far, the Lancers have made Mozzocio look like a prophet.
They are one of the highest-scoring teams in the playoffs, averaging 40.9 ppg with their wide-open spread offense.
Defensively, they give up just 16.5 ppg.
“The key to our success is we have an unselfish bunch,” Mozzocio said. “We have a lot of kids who can touch the ball and do really good things with it, but none of them are selfish about getting the ball. They all pull for each other to do well. There is no complaining about who gets the ball and who doesn't.”
Guiding the Lancer offense is quarterback Ernie Burkes, who has completed 101 of 164 passes for 1,356 yards and 17 TDs. He also has rushed for 740 yards and scored 10 TDs.
In the win over Jeff-Morgan, Burkes passed for 3 TDs and rushed for 3 more.
“He's done a good job with the offense,” Mozzocio said of his quarterback.
His top targets are John Congolose (40-557, 5 TDs) and Alex Walker (34-584, 10 TDs). Walker also has 20 carries for 207 yards.
“(Congolose and Walker) are really talented kids who can fly,” Mozzocio said. “They are two exciting kids to watch.”
Eli Owens is Neshannock's leading rusher, having run for 1,180 yards and 8 TDs on 140 carries.
While Mozzocio is pleased with what his team has done this season, he knows a big test lies ahead with the Greyhounds Friday night.
“That's a great football team they have there with a lot of ability,” he said.
He praised Monessen quarterback Chavas Rawlins, saying, “You can see on film he is a special kid. He's one of those kids who stands out and makes you say, ‘Wow.' We don't know if we can stop him, we only hope to try and contain him.”
PRE-GAME TID-BITS: Neshannock's lone loss was to Rochester, 28-21, and the Lancers handed Sto-Rox its only defeat, 35-34. Neshannock finished third behind Sto-Rox and Rochester in the conference on Gardner Points ... The loss to Rochester marked the only game this season Neshannock failed to score at least 35 points.
Jeff Oliver is a sports editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2666 or firstname.lastname@example.org.