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McKeesport linebacker takes over leadership duties

- Ronald Vezzani Jr./ for the Daily News
Ronald Vezzani Jr./ for the Daily News
- Ronald Vezzani Jr./ for the Daily News
Ronald Vezzani Jr./ for the Daily News

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Top high school sports
By Keith Barnes
Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, 11:59 p.m.

Hodari Christian has a lot of work to do in the next few months.

Not only is the McKeesport senior linebacker readying himself for the Tigers' final preseason scrimmage Friday against Penn Hills, but he is preparing himself for a busy final semester so he can leave school early and accept early admission to West Virginia.

“I feel real good about that because now I can just focus on my upcoming senior season and play the best I can when it comes,” Christian said.

“It's not going to be that hard because I'm just going to double up for the first two (quarters) to finish in December and leave in January.”

Christian will be the second McKeesport linebacker in as many years to head to a Division I school, following in the footsteps of Illinois rising freshman T.J. Neal. Playing with another top prospect helped him learn what he needed to do, both in sifting through his college choices and picking the right school to what he had to do to help the Tigers become a contender in the new nine-team Quad East Conference.

“I really learned leadership and things like that and just picking a school that was right for me,” Christian said. “He was the leader of the defense and, so far in camp, I'm the leader of the defense.”

And the young McKeesport defense will need a leader. The Tigers lost several key starters to graduation and are attempting to rebuild with some inexperienced underclassmen.

Perhaps the one advantage they have going into this season is they will be quite prepared for their first two opponents, as they will have seen two similar teams in the preseason.

“Central Catholic is more of a two-back, pro-style offense and Penn Hills likes to spread you out, and for us it gives us the sense of defending two different styles of offense. And in Week 1, Hempfield runs a similar offense to Penn Hills and Central is kind of like Woodland Hills,” McKeesport coach Jim Ward said. “I enjoy our scrimmages, and I think it prepares us well for the season.”

Which is what makes Christian's leadership ability all the more important as he cultivates the maturation process of the team's defense. The Tigers were solid throughout most of the 2011 season but were gashed for 80 points in their final two games, a 38-0 home loss to Gateway and a 42-7 defeat at Erie McDowell in the opening round of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs. Conversely, McKeesport allowed only 51 points (10.2 points per game) in its other five conference matchups.

Putting those two games in the past and establishing a new identity were two priorities for the team in training camp.

“You've got to assess your talent and find out who the kids are and what they do best and put that within your scheme,” Ward said. “You look at the things you did well last year, you look at things you didn't do well, you add a few things and tweak a few things and do things based on what your talent is.”

Keith Barnes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-664-9161 ext. 1977.

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