Unbeaten Penn Hills working to regain success of 1970s title teams
Inside the Fralic Athletic Center, Penn Hills quarterback Billy Kisner has studied the decades-old articles that prove the Indians once dominated the WPIAL.
At times, it feels like reading ancient history, especially the four consecutive WPIAL titles late in the 1970s. But for the sophomore, it's a source of motivation.
“I wasn't alive back then, but that gets my blood flowing,” Kisner said, “knowing that Penn Hills was ranked No. 1. I want to get Penn Hills back to where it was.”
Through three weeks this season, the once-powerful program has shown strides in that direction; the Indians are 3-0 for the first time since 2005. That's encouraging for a program that has endured four consecutive non-winning seasons, including 3-7 last year.
With the No. 1 and No. 6 rushers in Class AAAA on the same roster, they have one of the most potent ground attacks in the WPIAL.
But just how good are these Indians?
“We'll find out Friday night,” coach John Peterman said.
Upper St. Clair, ranked second in Class AAAA, will visit No. 10 Penn Hills on Friday for a Quad Central matchup of undefeated teams tied atop the conference standings. A year ago, USC won this matchup, 27-0, but Penn Hills will field a much different lineup this time.
“We've seen where Upper St. Clair is ranked and what everybody has been saying about them,” Peterman said. “We'll find out very quick if we're up at that level or if we still have work to do. ... This is an opportunity to put ourselves back in the conversation with the top Quad-A football teams.”
Against USC, Penn Hills' approach will be steady, Kisner said.
“Be ourselves, play our football and don't feed into the hype of what Upper St. Clair has done,” he said. “Are they a pretty good team? Yes, indeed. But we'll be ourselves and maybe shock the WPIAL.”
Their jet sweep running attack already has shocked some around the league.
With 568 rushing yards, Kisner ranks fifth among all WPIAL rushers. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound sophomore topped 200 yards twice this season.
Isaiah Jones, a junior slot receiver, has 438 rushing yards on jet sweeps. The teammates both surpassed 200 yards in a Week 2 victory over Peters Township; Kisner had 216, and Jones had 213.
The Indians' tailbacks are juniors Te'Shan Campbell (5-10, 180) and Cody Allen (6-1, 205), but senior Ron Brown also could be used now that the WPIAL has deemed him eligible. Brown, who played the past two seasons at Woodland Hills, and Imani had 1,070 rushing yards last year.
As a team, Penn Hills leads the WPIAL with 1,334 rushing yards in three games and has averaged 36 points.
But the points aren't all from its offense. Shawn Featherstone (6-0, 175), a senior wideout and safety, returned interceptions for touchdowns in each of the past two weeks and carried a kickoff to the end zone in Week 1.
A 37-21 victory over Baldwin last Friday kept Penn Hills unbeaten. When the Indians fell behind, 7-0, Kisner answered with two rushing scores. After Baldwin closed to within one, 14-13, Penn Hills scored the next 23 points, including a 60-yard return by Featherstone.
For Kisner, who played as a freshman, that was a sign of change.
“I feel like the WPIAL is starting to get a little worried that we're not the same old Penn Hills that would quit,” he said.
Peterman longs to restore the program's luster. A 1985 Penn Hills graduate who played running back, safety, punted and snapped for extra points, he remembers when Penn Hills was the No. 1 team in the state. Peterman handed Kisner the No. 3 that he once wore in high school.
“We're trying to teach them what it means to wear that red and gold,” Peterman said.
This is the second season for Peterman's coaching staff. Before the win-loss record change, he noticed a difference at practice. The players had accepted the program's direction.
“There's no second-guessing about what we're running or how we're running it,” Peterman said. “That's a good thing. Last year, we had some players questioning things. This year we have very little.”
Penn Hills was WPIAL champion from 1976-79, though its last title was vacated for using an ineligible player.
The Indians won WPIAL and PIAA titles in 1995 and were WPIAL runners-up in 2006.
But since a WPIAL semifinal appearance in 2008, the Indians haven't been contenders. They were 5-6 in 2009, 5-5 in 2010 and 2011, and 3-7 in 2012 (after starting 2-1). At times, Kisner said, it felt as though the Indians “were the laughingstock of the WPIAL.”
“We've had doubters in our own school,” he said. “I witnessed how Penn Hills was really talked about, how we were (disrespected) around the WPIAL. But now people are starting to pay attention to us, giving us the respect that we needed.”