Third-year Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio likened his football program to Dr. Seuss’ “Whoville,” because even with a 29-5 record since the start of the 2012 season and three straight WPIAL Class A quarterfinal-round appearances, the Lancers sense they’re overlooked if not dismissed, much like the fictional town that existed within a speck of dust.
“And our guys are chanting, ‘We’re here, we’re here,’ ” Mozzocio joked.
One or two more wins over some of the WPIAL’s most storied programs should help solidify Neshannock’s place on the map.
The No. 3 seed Lancers (10-0), in the midst of the best season in school history, meet Class A newcomer and No. 6 seed Jeannette (9-1) in the quarterfinals at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Deer Lakes. A win possibly will pit them against No. 2 Clairton (10-0), which continues to score at a state-record pace.
“We know we have to come out and earn our respect against programs with long-lasting traditions,” said sophomore quarterback Frank Antuono, who has thrown for 1,461 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushed for 310 yards and seven scores. “We have to go out there and build own our legacy.”
With Antuono, a first-year starter at quarterback, handling the snaps, Neshannock’s spread offense has averaged 47.6 points. The sophomore also is one of the leading tacklers on a defense that allows just 10.3 points per game.
But Antuono directs all praise toward the Lancers’ seniors, whose efforts as underclassmen made success more than a novelty at Neshannock, which had never won a playoff game before 2012 and lost 28 straight from 2000-02.
Senior running back Eli Owens, a 1,000-yard rusher each of the past two seasons, recalls a freshman season with half-empty bleachers at home games and considerable excitement over a 5-4 record.
When Mozzocio arrived in 2012, the culture changed — first within the football program, then around it. Neshannock reached the semifinals, where it lost to eventual PIAA champ Clairton.
Last season, the Lancers again made a run to the semifinals, where they fell to eventual state champion North Catholic.
Owens and his classmates await a season when Neshannock blazes its own path to WPIAL and PIAA hardware.
“We know from years before that no one ever expects us to come out with a big win in the playoffs,” said Owens, who has 102 carries for 988 yards and 13 touchdowns despite missing the first two games of the season as he recovered from an injury.
“I think our team is mentally prepared to play these powerhouse teams, because we’ve been there the past three years.”
Owens is a prominent member of a sizable group of playmakers that also includes senior running back Rocco Fazio and senior wide receivers Tyler Perry, Seth Dueitt and Jimmy Medure as well as junior tailbacks Robert Lindsey, Jonah Vitale and Stephen Phillips.
“All the doubt people have on us, we just feed off it and keep it to ourselves,” Fazio said.
Those doubts extend to Neshannock’s conference, the Big Seven. The Lancers’ dominance in a perceived weaker conference during the regular season became a side note to the achievements of fellow unbeatens North Catholic and Clairton.
Yet all four playoff qualifiers from the Big Seven advanced to the quarterfinals. No other conference in the WPIAL watched every postseason representative win last week.
“We had to hear all year that our conference is down, and we weren’t playing anybody and so on and so forth,” Mozzocio said. “We see these teams on a regular basis, and we know what they can do. … Hopefully we’ll do it again this week.”