Likely no football coach in the WPIAL grasps the dynamics of a post-merger program riding a wave of historic wins better than Central Valley’s Mark Lyons.
No surprise then that Lyons made sure to warn his Warriors about the electric disposition they should expect from their opponent in Friday’s PIAA Class AAA quarterfinal, first-time District 10 champion Conneaut.
At 7 p.m. Friday at North Allegheny’ s Newman Stadium, Central Valley (13-0), four years removed from an inaugural season that included a WPIAL title, meets the Eagles (11-1), who came into existence in 2012 following the merger of Conneaut Lake, Conneaut Valley and Linesville.
The winner advances further than either team has gone in the PIAA tournament and will play the victor of the District 3 championship game between Bishop McDevitt (13-0) and Cocalico (10-3).
“They’re going to be emotionally high and rightfully so,” Lyons said of the Eagles. “They’re trying to jump on this, and you can tell they’re playing like they have something special going on, so we’ve got to make sure we get after it and don’t get caught up in that.”
A 14-7 last-second win over previously unbeaten Erie Cathedral Prep, the two-time defending District 10 champ, in the district finals Nov. 14 increased the buzz surrounding the Eagles, whose only loss came Sept. 26 to Class AAAA General McLane.
With dual-threat quarterback Hunter Merritt in charge, Conneaut averages 44.5 points per game. Merritt has rushed for more than 1,500 yards and passed for more than 1,000 this season.
“I think he’s the epitome of that team,” Lyons said. “He’s not going down with an arm tackle. He’ll gut it out on every play.”
Running back Elijah Anderton gives Conneaut a one-two rushing punch, as he also has exceeded 1,500 yards this season.
The Warriors will counter with senior Jordan Whitehead, who’s averaging 207.8 all-purpose yards per game, and a John George-led passing game that averaged 27.6 yards per completion a week ago in the 35-28 win over West Allegheny at Heinz Field.
Central Valley’s seniors missed the 2010 season by one year, but they paid enough attention to pick up on the thrills of such a breakthrough campaign.
“That kind of set the tone for a lot of things when they went out and won the WPIAL that first year,” linebacker and leading tackler Rocco Martini said. “Obviously you want to follow that, so it’s kind of set a tradition of being a good program.”
Central Valley lost in the PIAA quarterfinals 31-21 to Erie Cathedral Prep that season, so a win in the state playoffs remains on the Warriors’ to-do list.
“We want to get down to Earth again and get our feet back on the ground,” Martini said, “but the main thing we want to do is keep our fire and our intensity that we had the last game and throughout the playoffs.”
Prediction: Central Valley, 35-21.