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Top-tier quarterbacks to be on display as Sto-Rox hosts Neshannock

| Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Rochester's Dante Marsick fends off Neshannock's Ernie Burkes along the sideline during the second quarter Friday, Oct. 5, 2012 in Rochester.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Sto-Rox quarterback Lenny Williams works out Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, during the Vikings' practice in McKees Rocks.

With one hand tied behind his back, or at least securely wrapped, Lenny Williams can still throw touchdown passes.

The Sto-Rox senior's surgically repaired left hand has improved much since he sliced a tendon with hedge trimmers in August. Yet, even with the injury to his non-throwing hand, the right-handed quarterback hasn't suffered any letdown.

Williams passed for 564 yards and eight touchdowns in the season's first two weeks, games he originally was expected to watch from the sideline. A week ago, he became just the seventh WPIAL passer to surpass 6,000 career yards.

“He hasn't missed a step, which is a surprise,” Sto-Rox coach Dan Bradley said. “A pleasant surprise.”

With 6,196 yards, Williams remains on course to challenge the WPIAL's career passing record (7,162) set by South Fayette's Christian Brumbaugh in 2010.

A four-year starter who entered the lineup four plays into his freshman season, Williams has earned the admiration of many. Count Neshannock quarterback Ernie Burkes among them.

The two quarterbacks will share the field Thursday night when No. 4 Neshannock visits No. 2 Sto-Rox for a Big Seven Conference matchup in McKees Rocks.

“The things he does for his team are amazing to watch,” Burkes said. “He was always someone I pretty much looked up to. Whenever I became a quarterback, I've tried every game and every practice to be as good as him.”

Burkes doesn't have Division I offers and won't set passing records, but the senior might rival Williams as a playmaker. The two athletes are versatile quarterbacks who run and throw. With Williams under center, Sto-Rox has scored 97 points, second-most among Class A offenses. With Burkes, Neshannock ranks fourth (90 points).

“Our versatility is the reason our offenses are so high-powered and can score so many points,” said Burkes, who passed for 1,500 yards last season, rushed for 800 and had a hand in 34 touchdowns. “We can both run and throw, and it's hard to stop a quarterback who can do both.”

The conference's seven other teams would agree.

Neshannock has a solid lineup that includes tailback Eli Owens, a 1,200-yard rusher last season who had 247 yards last week. Sto-Rox has tailback Brendan Blair and some talented receivers. Both teams also have strong offensive lines. But the two quarterbacks should headline this televised matchup.

“Ernie definitely will be up to the challenge,” said Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio, who called him the Lancers' Johnny Manziel. “He doesn't talk about it, but I know Ernie. He's a fierce competitor. Ernie likes to be the best at whatever he does. When he goes up against an athlete like Lenny, that's going to bring out the best in him.”

Root Sports will show the game tape delayed after the Pirates.

Williams (6-foot-0, 200 pounds) threw six touchdown passes in last week's 55-7 victory over South Side Beaver. A week earlier, he threw two and added a 9-yard touchdown run to beat Shenango, 42-0. Williams, a Division I-recruited defensive back, has not played defense this season to protect his hand. But he could be cleared to play both ways Thursday after he visits his doctor.

“At Sto-Rox, it all starts with Lenny,” Mozzocio said. “The kid's a freakish athlete who can do just about anything he wants to do.”

Burkes (5-10, 165) had touchdown runs of 16 and 80 yards along with an 11-yard touchdown pass in last week's 34-12 victory over Laurel. In Week 1, he threw two touchdowns and ran 45 yards for another in a 56-7 victory over South Side Beaver.

“He's a playmaker who's quick as lightning,” Bradley said. “We had him bottled up a couple times last year, but he'd cut, spin, dip in, dip out and end up with a 15-yard gain.”

This was a one-point matchup last season. Neshannock won, 35-34, on its home field with an 8-yard run with 17.9 seconds left. That win was a confidence boost for the Lancers.

It validated what the Lancers had been hearing from their first-year coach. Losing wasn't inevitable at Neshannock, which once endured a 28-game losing streak from 2000-02.

“When my staff got here, everybody in Lawrence County told us we would never win up here,” Mozzocio said. “You could never beat a Sto-Rox or Rochester or Monessen, the upper echelon teams. We relayed the message to our kids. We told them what was being said. We challenged them and they answered the call.”

With both teams entering highly ranked, Sto-Rox welcomes this game as a measuring stick.

“They're probably the best team we're going to see in the regular season,” Williams said, “so we'll get a chance to see how good we really are. A lot of our guys have been waiting for this week.”

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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