Sam Albert emphasized one word to his Kiski Area football players Monday.
It certainly came knocking for the Cavaliers this week, with their biggest test yet looming Friday: a trip to No. 2 Penn Hills, one of the most talent-rich teams in Class 5A with a handful of Division I players, for a Northern Conference game.
A victory over the loaded Indians (4-0, 2-0) would represent the largest in years — maybe decades — for resurgent Kiski Area (3-1, 2-1) and would give the Cavaliers an even bigger boost of confidence after a one-win season in 2017.
“If you look at us on paper, if you talk to people, they’re probably the best team in the state,” Albert said. “You want to play teams like that. We put ourselves in position to be pretty respected now, too, so it’s not like it’s going to be a pushover. Our kids, they’ll compete with anybody.”
That represents a new mentality Albert was hoping to instill at Kiski Area when he came over from Highlands in 2017. It took some time, but the message is sinking in. No longer are the Cavaliers losing games before they even start, something players admitted might have been the case in previous years; this group is embracing the challenge of playing one of the top contenders for a WPIAL and PIAA title.
“I love it,” senior Jack Colecchi said. “It’s the best part of the game. It’s the reason I play sports. It’s the best thing you can get. It pushes you to your limits, and it pushes you to be better and that’s what I’m doing.”
Of course, Penn Hills knows that attitude well. Given their status as one of the WPIAL favorites, and a long-time contender, the Indians traditionally see the best of what their opponents have to offer and know they can’t afford to take any team lightly.
“We’ve been trying to preach to everyone on our team that we’re not just going to come out and play a team and play against their average game,” senior Hollis Mathis said. “We’re going to come out and play against the best version of each team that they can bring each week. So we’re going to get everybody’s best shot week-in, week-out. … That’s what keeps us motivated because we know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We want to prove our supremacy, if you will, as far as the WPIAL goes.”
Penn Hills has five seniors who are committed to Division I schools or have offers from them.
Mathis, Penn Hills’ quarterback, and RB/LB Terry “Tank” Smith are committed to Howard. WR/DB Dante Cephas committed Tuesday to Kent State. WR/DB Corey Thomas has several Division I offers, including Army, Navy and a handful of Mid-American Conference schools, and WR/DB Daequan Hardy counts Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska among nearly a dozen scholarship offers.
That amount of talent means the Indians have an edge on just about any team that lines up against them, but Mathis said the team wanted to get better at coming through in close games. Penn Hills did that in Week Zero, holding off Steubenville (Ohio) for a 21-14 win, and the Indians showed their tenacity again last week with a 36-15 win over Mars.
“We were in a couple close games last year, and for most of those guys, that was their first varsity experience in close games and we fell up short in most of those games not knowing how to face adversity, respond to adversity and close things out,” Penn Hills coach Jon LeDonne said.
“…We’ve been talking about that all offseason, focused on finishing, and fourth quarter this past Friday was a good example of that.”
Kiski Area lost a close game in Week 2 to North Hills but rebounded with a 37-0 victory last week over Fox Chapel, as quarterback Ryne Wallace passed for 390 yards and five touchdowns.
The Cavaliers likely will need similar production to keep up with Penn Hills, which is averaging 38.3 points. Mathis, whom Albert called “incredible,” runs the Indians’ run-pass option offense to a “T,” passing for 150 yards and two scores against Mars. Smith and Hardy had 100-plus yards on the ground against the Planets — Hardy did so on two attempts, one being an 86-yard touchdown. Cephas had 99 yards and a touchdown on three catches.
“They’re at least going to make one play. One of them’s going to break a 40-yard run. One of them’s going to score an 80-yard touchdown,” Colecchi said. “It’s just what they do as being D-I players and being that skilled of players. We’ve just got to make sure when they do that, we answer and we return the call. That’s just how we’ve got to play. And if we don’t, then they’re going to beat us by a lot. But if we can stay into it and keep our heads in the game, I think we have a good chance of playing with them.”
In Kiski Area, Penn Hills will see the opposite of Mars’ run-heavy, wing-T attack, as Wallace attempted 31 passes against Fox Chapel. Colecchi had 217 yards receiving and two touchdowns, tight end Troy Kuhn added 91 yards and two scores, including a 72-yarder, and Tracey Morris caught a 41-yard touchdown pass, as well.
“They look like a real disciplined team, a team that looks like they have solid playmakers at very pivotal positions on the field,” Mathis said. “They also look like they’ve really invested in their season and are really willing to sell out. When we line up against them, we’ll have to really be on our ‘A’ game to be able to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
Albert hopes to see Kiski Area take advantage of its opportunity. Penn Hills leads their all-time series 20-4, with Kiski Area’s last win coming in 1997.
“They’re an excellent football team, so we’ll have to play a perfect game to stay on the field with them,” Albert said. “I don’t know if anybody — Gateway, maybe — but I don’t see anyone else with their athletes. They’re just a great football team. He has 25 seniors. They’re senior-oriented.
“Now, that being said, will we come and give everything? Oh, yeah. My kids will come and battle, you know that. So we’re excited about the opportunity. We have nothing to lose.”
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Penn Hills' Daequan Hardy runs the ball down field when Mars hosted Penn Hills, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Penn Hills Hollis Mathis dives over Mars defense when Mars hosted Penn Hills, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Kiski Area’s Tracy Morris follows the blocking of Garrett Polka against Fox Chapel last week at Richard J. Dilts Field.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Kiski Areaճ Jack Colecchi, catches a pass as Fox Chapelճ Lorenzo Jenkins attempts to cover in the first half at Richard J. Dilts Field. Friday Sept 14, 2018.