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Locals help power Pitt, WVU football

| Sunday, Jan. 5, 2003

Expectations heading into the 2003 football season at the University of Pittsburgh will almost be as lofty as this season's expectations are for the Panthers' men's basketball team.

Despite four close and frustrating defeats this past season, the Panthers produced their first nine-win season since Dan Marino's 1982 senior season. Unlike that year, which ended with a 7-3 loss to Southern Methodist in the Cotton Bowl, the 2002 Pitt team won its Bowl game with a 38-13 whipping of Oregon State in the Insight Bowl in Phoenix, Ariz.

Offensive stars such as receiver Larry Fitzgerald, running back Brandon Miree and quarterback Rod Rutherford will undoubtedly receive plenty of preseason hype.

However, if Pitt football is going to move to the next level and join the nation's elite programs, Charleroi's Dan LaCarte will play as much, if not more, of a role.

Other than coaches' grades from the films, offensive team statistics and the recording of big hits known as "pancakes," LaCarte does not have any personal statistics to show his effective play. Like most offensive lineman, LaCarte wallows in anonymity while his efforts make the running backs, quarterbacks and receivers famous.

A 6-4, 295-pound left guard, LaCarte has played quite a significant role in the Panthers earning its first end-of-season national ranking in 14 years.

Originally a reserve defensive lineman in 2000, LaCarte moved to offense during the 2001 off-season and became the Panthers starting left guard. He was named the team's Most Improved Offensive Player at season's end. Two years ago, Pitt overcame a near-disastrous 1-5 start and won its final six games, including a victory over North Carolina State in the Tangerine Bowl.

This past season, LaCarte helped the Panthers average over 360 yards a game and win a second-straight Bowl game for the first time since 1981-83.

"Having a defensive mentality makes Dan a very tenacious and aggressive player," said Pitt offensive line coach Tom Freeman. "We could not be any happier with his development. He has done all we have asked and has become one of our top linemen. He deserves all the credit and has worked his tail off. He is someone other players need to emulate."

LaCarte's steady rise as a premier big-time college football player is hardly a surprise to those who witnessed his superb scholastic career at Charleroi. He was a four-year starting tight end and three-year starting outside linebacker on the Cougars football team. He was a driving force on Charleroi's 9-2 team in 1998 that was co-champion of the Century Conference and coached by Jim Dumm.

LaCarte earned first-team All-State honors at tight end after making 24 catches for 271 yards and five touchdowns as a senior. LaCarte was also a basketball and baseball standout.

The son of John and Mary Ann LaCarte is majoring in business management. He may not be the biggest lineman in today's world, where high school offensive lines average more than 300 pounds per man, but his arms and overall physique looked as imposing as anyone's on the field at the Insight Bowl.

If Pitt football does reach the next level next fall, look for Charleroi's Dan LaCarte to be clearing out space and helping other players add to their personal statistics. He has already helped Pitt win 15 of its last 19 games.

TWO MORE LOCALS

Another local player who could play a key role in Pitt's continued football success in 2003 is former Belle Vernon Area great Erik Gill.

He was the Panthers' backup tight end this season after a 2001 redshirt season that culminated with Gill's exceptional work ethic in practices earning him the coach's Offensive Prep Player of the Year honor.

A multi-sport star in high school like LaCarte, the 6-5, 255-pound Gill was a two-time All-State selection under former BVA head football coach Gary Dongilli and a three-year offensive and defensive starter. He finished his scholastic career as the Leopards' all-time career receiving leader with 54 receptions for 1,095 yards.

Connellsville High School graduate Marcus Furman averaged over 6 yards per carry this past season at Pitt. The 5-8, 185-pound sophomore running back/receiver gained 75 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown and caught six balls for 50 yards. In the Insight Bowl victory, Furman caught two more balls for 17 yards. In 2001 he gained 243 rushing yards before also playing at wide receiver in 2002. At Connellsville High School under head coach Dan Spanish, Furman gained 5,041 rushing yards, including a WPIAL leading 2,037 as a junior.

WVU TOO

West Virginia University had its best football season since 1993 despite a 48-22 loss to Virginia in the first-ever Continental Tire Bowl.

Handling all of the placekicking duties as well as being the backup punter for the 9-4 Mountaineers was former Ringgold All-State performer Todd James.

During the 2002 regular season, James, a 6-3, 200-pound junior, converted 10 of 15 field goal attempts, including a season-high field goal of 42 yards. He added a 27-yard field goal that opened the scoring of the Continental Tire Bowl. As the backup punter to Mark Fazzolari, James averaged a most-respectable 37.4 yards on 14 punts with a season long boot of 52 yards. James, a two-time member of the Big East Academic all-star team, has handled the kickoffs for WVU each of the past three years.

Connellsville High School graduate Phil Braxton, a 6-3, 200-pound senior wide receiver, also had a successful season with WVU. He was the Mountaineers' second-leading receiver during the regular season with 16 catches for 271 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran the football seven times for 66 yards and a touchdown. He was WVU's top kick returner, averaging 26 yards on 15 returns. At the Tire Bowl, Braxton led all receivers with four receptions for 109 yards and returned four kickoffs for 96 yards.

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