Gorman: Quaker Valley values its great Dane
Quaker Valley coach John Tortorea starts the analogy with an apology, so that his compliment won't be confused with criticism.
It's not every day a football player is called an “absolute gentleman” by the man wearing the whistle with no trace of contempt or cynicism.
This is football, not tennis.
But the gentlemen who coach in the WPIAL Class AA Century Conference are in absolute agreement that Dane Jackson is the dynamic ingredient to Quaker Valley's sudden success.
“He's legit,” Steel Valley coach Rod Steele said Friday night, minutes before kickoff at William V. Campbell Stadium in Munhall. “He's probably the best dual threat kid we'll see all year.”
This great Dane gives dual meaning to dual-threat, given that he plays for Quaker Valley in football and against the Quakers in basketball.
Jackson is one of 10 students from Cornell, which dropped football in 2011, who play for Quaker Valley through a co-operative sponsorship.
“It's fantastic. I'm really happy to be a part of it,” Jackson said. “At first, I thought it was going to be kind of rough, but the fans and everyone over here is so supportive. I'm starting to fit in. I feel like I'm fitting in.
“They make me feel welcome. They don't put pressure on me at all. It's amazing to see everyone happy now, excited to be part of the team.”
The offense revolves around Jackson, a 6-foot-1, 165-pound junior quarterback who is the catalyst in a resurgent season that has the Quakers at least thinking about making the WPIAL playoffs, if not actually talking about the feat.
“Before anyone mentions Dane, I always say he's an absolute gentleman. He's a wonderful young man to be around,” Tortorea said. “It works because our guys really look up to Dane. He plays well, and he plays hard. Our kids absolutely fell in love with him. He's our quiet leader, and everybody takes his lead. He's been a big part of this transition, for sure.”
Under Tortorea, it's taboo to talk about being undefeated, let alone making the playoffs. At 5-0 and tied for first place with South Fayette, which visits Quaker Valley's Chuck Knox Stadium next week, the Quakers are positioned to make the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 1999 and only the fifth time in the school's 57-year history.
“We're not allowed to talk about playoffs,” Jackson said, “but that's a goal.”
Perhaps Tortorea doesn't want to jinx Quaker Valley by talking about the playoffs before the Quakers actually clinch a berth. It beats the alternative.
“But it is fun at this point not to be eliminated from the playoffs,” Tortorea said. “Usually, by this time, ‘We're like, ‘Are we in, or are we out?' There's some mathematical possibilities. It's absolutely a pleasure to come here every day knowing that there are bigger things, hopefully, down the road for us.”
The terrific turnaround has made Quaker Valley football the talk of the Edgeworth, Fair Oaks, Leetsdale, Osborne and Sewickley communities, where soccer has long been king and football an afterthought in the fall.
The Quakers are relishing their relevance, especially those who have no recollection of watching a winning team, let alone playing for one.
“I haven't really experienced this in my three years here. It's different, but it's good,” said junior receiver/cornerback Chris Conlan, son of former Penn State and Buffalo Bills linebacker Shane. Conlan's older brother, Pat, was a good quarterback on bad QV teams.
“It means a lot. In past years, the football team has been like a joke to the school. Kids would go to the game and not even watch, just walk around. This year, that's definitely changed. People are coming to the game, and we had a giant student section last game.
“It was just surreal.”
Quaker Valley players aren't shy about vocalizing that Jackson, who played slot receiver as a sophomore, has made a difference.
“It helps a lot, considering the athlete he is — he's an outstanding athlete — and the type of person he is,” Conlan said. “He's just a nice guy. We're really glad to have him on our team this year.”
Jackson entered the Steel Valley game averaging 12.2 yards per carry in rushing for 514 yards and three touchdowns as Quaker Valley averaged 43.8 points over the first four games. Granted, the Quakers' opponents were a combined 3-13, but this was big for a program used to being blown out, not winning by wide margins.
“He's just a dynamic kid,” Tortorea said. “The scary part is, he's yet to scratch the surface of what he can do.”
Jackson got his chance early against Steel Valley, breaking off a 44-yard run deep into Ironmen territory before being tripped up. In the second quarter, Jackson ran a keeper left before cutting back across field on his way to a 65-yard scoring run for a 7-0 lead.
By halftime, he had 122 yards on five carries. He finished with 149 yards on 13 carries and one touchdown, and he completed 2 of 6 passes for 17 yards, showing the skills that cause opposing coaches to call him a dangerous dual threat.
With 20 seconds left and Quaker Valley clinging to a 14-7 lead, Jackson changed that to triple threat by booting a rugby-style punt 50 yards to pin Steel Valley at its own 5-yard line to seal the Quakers' fifth consecutive victory.
“He's made some special plays this year,” Tortorea said, “and we're pretty lucky to have him.”
As compliments from coaches go, that's as understated as it is underrated.