Penn-Trafford football has championship expectations
Penn-Trafford football players know all about the high expectations outsiders have for their team this season.
In many ways, those expectations match their own.
One season after advancing to the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals for the first time since 1997, Penn-Trafford is looking for bigger things. And the Warriors aren't just hoping for success; they're expecting it.
“I think our whole mentality has changed in the fact that just making the playoffs isn't good enough anymore,” senior lineman Trey Blandford said. “We want to go win a WPIAL championship. Every team's goal is to win one, but that's how we feel.”
Last season, Penn-Trafford endured some early ups and downs before putting together its playoff run. The Warriors started the season 4-3, losing games to North Hills, McKeesport and Kiski Area before closing out the regular season with wins over Gateway and Hempfield.
The victories over the Gators and Spartans propelled the Warriors into the playoffs, where they beat Penn Hills and McKeesport before bowing out with a 49-10 loss to Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the semifinals.
“One thing we want to do is have a better regular season,” said senior H-back/linebacker Sam Guzik. “People often forget about that because of the nice playoff run we made, but we had a shaky regular season. And then obviously our goal is to go to Heinz (Field) and go to Hershey and win (WPIAL and state titles).”
The semifinal loss motivated the Warriors throughout the offseason, as some special teams lapses cost the team against Central Catholic. Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane said the Warriors spent a large chunk of their offseason working on special teams.
“It was a terrible loss,” senior linebacker Lance Burk said. “We hear about it every day. Coach brings it up, trying to push us to be better. Special teams was a huge role in that game, and we've got to definitely get better at those, get our minds straight and get better.”
Heading into the 2014 season, Penn-Trafford will benefit from seven returning starters on each side of the ball.
“We have a lot of returning starters from last year, which is obviously a big part,” senior running back Devin Austin said. “A couple starters that we lost on offense and defense, people have stepped up and filled those positions. I think they're going to do a good job.”
Offensively, the Warriors return their leading rusher, passer and receiver from 2013. In addition to Austin, who rushed for 1,285 yards and seven touchdowns, junior wide receiver Timmy Vecchio (682 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) and junior quarterback Brett Laffoon (1,430 passing yards, 13 TDs) return.
But Ruane said he expected big things out of some lesser-known names, such as wide receivers Tyler Bruno, Joe Peduzzi, Zack Queen, Austin Zegarelli and running backs Jonah Lisbon, Gabe Mertz and Justin Smith. Those players will help offset the losses of Ryan Marasti and Tom Stinelli at wide receiver and running back, respectively.
“I think we have some different guys who can surprise some people,” Ruane said. “We have some speed, and we have some athleticism. ... We have the potential to be (a dynamic offensive team). We'll find out that first Friday how good we can be.”
Tight end Chris Stanford returns up front for Penn-Trafford, as do Blandford and Donovan McNelis at guard and Dan Sich at tackle.
“(Our offensive line has) a great chemistry,” McNelis said. “We hang out all the time. We work out all the time. We all know each other. With that running back we have, we should be fine this year.”
Defensively, the Warriors' biggest strength comes on the line. Blandford, an all-state selection last season, returns at defensive end, as does Stanford. Defensive tackle Andre Guest also returns as a starter.
“To put (Blandford and Stanford) at defensive end is great for everybody else on the field because they're going to command attention from offensive linemen and backs,” Ruane said. “They're both big, strong, physical, athletic guys who set the tone for us on defense.”
McNelis, Sich and Garrett Smith will also see time on the defensive line.
At linebacker, Guzik will move from the outside to the inside. Burk, one of the team's leading tacklers from last season, also returns at inside linebacker. Lisbon will move up from safety to play outside linebacker, and Zegarelli should also see time there.
“We might not be as big as last year's guys, but we might be more athletic,” Ruane said. “(Guzik) was a tremendous player for us last year. We expect him to have a big impact on both sides of the ball for us.”
Queen returns at cornerback and will be joined by Austin and Vecchio, while Peduzzi will play safety.
Special teams remains an unknown, but Penn-Trafford's roster includes three kickers/punters in Casey Aunkst, Josh Ivanco and Ben Long. Ruane said the team emphasized working on special teams in the offseason after struggling at times last season, most notably in the semifinal loss.
Penn-Trafford will begin the season Aug. 29 at Kiski Area.
“I have 100 percent mindset that our team is ready to go out and win a championship,” Guzik said. “It's such a close group. None of us want this to end, so we're going to keep this going as long as we can, keep winning and hopefully bring home two championships.”