More and more, the high school game has become an air show |
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Paul Schofield

Big crowd. Bright lights. Growing anticipation.

It all helps Penn-Trafford senior quarterback Tyler Huether get pumped up for Friday night football.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” he said. “It helps me get into a zone.”

Huether is just one of the new breed of quarterbacks — many of them performing in Westmoreland and neighboring counties — who are being recruited to play in college. The list includes Norwin’s T.J. Salopek, Mt. Pleasant’s Jeff Marker, Franklin Regional’s Brad Phillips, Blairsville’s Adam Highberger, Greensburg Central Catholic’s Cody Catalina and Kiski Area’s Mychal Skinner.

Others in the WPIAL include Seneca Valley’s Kevan Smith, South Park’s Connor Dixon, Pine-Richland’s Jake Long and South Fayette’s Andrew DiDonato. Smith already have given Pitt a verbal commitment, and Dixon plans to attend Michigan State.

Over the years, this area has produced great quarterbacks, led by Hall of Famers Dan Marino, Joe Montana, John Unitas, Joe Namath and Jim Kelly.

But the game has changed since they were the leaders of their high school teams. Their careers didn’t take off until they were in college and in the NFL. Today’s breed of quarterbacks has been allowed to show off their arms earlier and more often.

High school coaches used to rely on the running game. Now, pass-oriented offensive attacks have become popular.

“There are huge differences in the passing game now,” said Greensburg Salem coach Casey Cavanaugh, who was a quarterback in 1980 at the school where he now leads the program. “When I played, we rarely threw the ball. High school teams now are doing more complicated and sophisticated schemes.”

Offenses started to change in the mid-1970s, when then-Portland State coach Mouse Davis introduced the run-and-shoot offense to college football. Portland State put up the gaudy numbers, and Davis went on to coach in the USFL for the Houston Gamblers.

It didn’t take high school coaches long to realize the success of the spread offense. Former Penn-Trafford coach John Yaccino, who also coached in Texas, was one of the first coaches in Western Pennsylvania to use the run-and-shoot in the late 1980s. Since then, passing numbers have soared across the state.

Last year, four WPIAL quarterbacks threw for more than 2,000 yards. Seton-La Salle’s Bill Stull, who is attending Pitt, was the WPIAL leader. He passed for more than 3,400 yards.

“The coaches have a better understanding of the passing game,” said Albert Gallatin coach Chuck Colborn, who was a quarterback in the late 1970s at Beth-Center. “Now, teams try to create mismatches by spreading teams out.”

Jeannette coach Ray Reitz said current Penn-Trafford coach Art Tragesser, who first coached at Jeannette, has been especially successful at spreading out the defense to create vulnerable seams.

Tragesser, who replaced Yaccino at Penn-Trafford 10 years ago, has continued to run a version of the spread offense at Penn-Trafford, and Huether has excelled under the system. He passed for 2,209 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. He has thrown for 3,200 yards and 29 scores in his career.

Those numbers are good, but Huether wants more.

“I love everything about high school football,” Huether said. “It’s so exciting to play on a Friday night. Everyone knows who you are. It’s flattering when people who don’t even know you say, ‘Hi,’ or tell me ‘Great game’ or ‘Good luck.’ It’s all about being a leader.”

Although the passing game has improved, Tragesser said the players behind the center haven’t, adding that quarterbacks on high school teams are like heroes because they are admired by many people and are asked to be leaders on and off the field.

“It’s obviously the position people look at first,” Tragesser said. “The quarterback should have athletic ability and leadership qualities. He also is asked to make good decisions.”

Tragesser said he gives Huether the option to change the play at the line of scrimmage when defenses line up a certain way.

Salopek, who had his junior season cut short with a shoulder injury, hopes to make a name for himself with a big senior season. Salopek’s stock soared this year with his performances at quarterback camps.

“T.J. is a winner,” Norwin coach Dan Conwell said. “He’ll do whatever it takes to lead the team.”

Phillips, who shares the quarterback duties with junior Len Gallo, hopes to make his mark at whatever position he plays. Phillips, who made a verbal commitment to attend Northwestern as a defensive back, also will play quarterback and wide receiver for the Panthers.

Highberger is a four-year starter for Blairsville and hopes to lead the Indiana County School to a third consecutive Heritage Conference championship.

“I’ve had a lot of fun the past few seasons,” he said.

Also prominent on the radar of opposing defensive coordinators are Marker, who has been Mt. Pleasant’s starter since his freshman season; and Catalina, who is one of the top juniors in the area.

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