Now in 5th season, Ruane, team building winning tradition at Penn-Trafford
On a rainy Monday morning last month, more than 60 players gathered for summer workouts at Penn-Trafford's Warrior Stadium. Yet it was the appearance of three alumni that resonated most with head coach John Ruane.
That Zack Crossey, Tom Stinelli and Zach Emerick cared enough to show up meant something to Ruane, who is entering his fifth year as Penn-Trafford's head coach after a nine-year stint as an assistant at Gateway.
“I can go back five years and rave about guys like those three,” Ruane said. “The younger guys see them and think, ‘That's what this is all about.' They don't back down. They don't make excuses.
“And it's not just those three. We've had a lot of guys who epitomize that over the past five years.”
By emphasizing competition and building from within — Ruane insists there hasn't been a transfer in or out in his five years — Penn-Trafford has developed into a rock-solid program.
It's a program that has current and former players taking an immense amount of pride in the Warriors' success and hoping to build on a WPIAL Class AAAA semifinal appearance a season ago.
Since taking over a team that went 18-32 in the five years prior to his arrival, Ruane has guided Penn-Trafford to a 29-14 mark over the past five seasons, 25-8 if you exclude a 4-6 record his first year.
“He changed our whole mentality,” senior lineman Trey Blandford said. “It used to be that we were happy to make the playoffs. Now, if we're not in the championship, it's not good enough.”
Though it might not look like much, Ruane said that 2010 season was pivotal. The Warriors lost seven games by an average of 27.4 points per game the previous year, and that number dropped to 13.5 in six losses his first season.
“We lost six games, but we weren't getting blown out,” Ruane said. “The year before they were losing big. We learned how to compete.”
In 2011, Penn-Trafford learned how to win, going undefeated in the regular season — victories over Gateway, McKeesport and Mt. Lebanon boosted morale — before falling to the Gators in the WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinals.
“That gave us the type of attitude where, regardless of who we're playing, we're going to go out and play without the expectation of beating who people say you should beat and losing to who people say you should lose to,” Ruane said. “We set the goal of winning every game, and we believe that we can do it.”
Ruane doesn't restrict winning to games.
Practices must be won. Workouts must be won. The Warriors are so competitive that it's a wonder water breaks aren't charted by who arrived first or their consumption totals.
“We try to build competition into everything we do,” Ruane said.
Which means in the offseason splitting into teams and earning points for everything from attendance to grades to fundraising to weightlifting.
The winners eat meals first, get hoodies and other team gear and bragging rights. The losers must perform a skit for the team and help distribute water during summer camp.
“We do as much as we can to be competitive within ourselves,” Blandford said. “I think it brings us closer together.”
Football-wise, Ruane added speed training twice a week while emphasizing stamina, footwork and the fast-twitch muscles, Blandford said. The approach seems to be working.
“It didn't take the coaches long at all to change the culture of the program,” senior linebacker Sam Guzik said. “I never want to play for another coaching staff. We love their demeanor, their mental attitude and the way they do things.”
Ruane said another way he emphasizes competition is by changing the depth chart from practice to practice, hopefully curtailing the temptation for players to coast.
“We don't like people to get too comfortable,” Ruane said. “Obviously every coach loves having depth so you can pull people when they're not performing. In camp, we'll go from Practice A to Practice B and have a different lineup if we're not happy with Practice A.”
Does he print out a new piece of paper every time?
“We'll make it known,” Ruane said, smiling. “Typically the message is sent, and whoever it was gets their act together for the next time.”
Penn-Trafford has a history of turning things around quickly.
After opening the 2013 season 2-2, back-to-back wins over Latrobe and Connellsville got the ball rolling.
Knocking off Gateway and Hempfield to close the regular season helped Penn-Trafford enter the playoffs with plenty of momentum, and it made it feel like last year really was two seasons instead of one.
“We had a sub-par first half of the season, where the kids agreed we didn't really perform to our expectations,” Ruane said. “Then we got into the stretch and decided we were better than we were — and we played at a higher level.
“That's been a focal point. We have to play consistently throughout.”
Blandford, fellow guard Donovan McNelis and tackle Dan Sich give Penn-Trafford plenty of experience up front.
Junior quarterback Brett Laffoon, senior running back Devin Austin and junior wide receiver Timmy Vecchio are three superbly talented skill players who in mid-July helped Penn-Trafford win the Westmoreland County Coaches Association seven-on-seven tournament.
But as exciting as that might have been, Austin knows winning in the playoffs truly is what matters.
“It's definitely something to build off of, knowing that we were so close,” Austin said of falling to Central Catholic in the semis. “We want to get back there. Maybe take it a step further and keep moving on.”
Blandford, junior defensive end Chris Stanford and junior nose tackle Andre Guest will anchor the defensive line.
Guzik and senior Lance Burke are returning starters at linebacker, seniors Jonah Lisbon and Zack Queen and Vecchio in the secondary.
“I always think in high school that the biggest strength you can have is experience,” Ruane said. “The fact that so many guys have played and played 12 games last year is a big strength.”
Former players such as Crossey, Stinelli and Emerick provide perhaps the greatest motivation, Burke said.
Yearly expectations have been established for the program, and this group doesn't want to let that group down.
“I'm a senior this year, so I know I'm thinking about this a lot more than I did last year,” Burke said. “We know we're held to higher expectations. The coaching staff, the fans, they all want us to be back in the same situation as last year. We do, too.”