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Pine-Richland hopes to avoid ‘drop off’ against State College

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Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Pine-Richland head coach Eric Kasperowicz holds the trophy after his team's win over Central Catholic in the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game Friday, Nov. 21, 2014, at Heinz Field. The Rams won the game 21-13.

Altoona’s Mansion Park Stadium was the frigid backdrop for one of Eric Kasperowicz’s favorite football memories.

As a senior, his state champion North Hills team won the title there. Two decades later, the second-year coach wants his Pine-Richland players to enjoy the old place just as much.

“It’s like going back home,” said Kasperowicz, whose Rams (13-0) visit the stadium Saturday afternoon for a PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal against State College (6-6) of District 6.

In 1993, five years before the championships relocated to Hershey, North Hills beat Central Bucks West, 15-14, for the Class AAAA title. It’s a moment Pine-Richland’s players have heard about and want to experience themselves.

A visit to Altoona seems like a fitting start.

“(Coaches) tell a lot of stories about our experiences, mine in particular,” said Kasperowicz, a 5,000-yard career passer who also played safety at North Hills and Pitt. “We share what it was like (to win a title) and what it’s going to be like as we move forward here.”

The Rams still are two wins away from any potential championship appearance. But this week, that decades-old experience could be used to avoid trouble.

With Saturday’s matchup scheduled eight days after an emotional WPIAL win, with a 1 p.m. kickoff in a distant place, and against a team that’s maybe better than its record would indicate, Kasperowicz understands the danger.

“We can’t have a let-up,” he said. “We can’t have that classic drop off. We’re not playing at Heinz Field. It’s going to be pretty cold, and there probably will be nobody there. We have to stay focused.”

State College reached the quarterfinals with a 27-6 victory over District 10 champion Erie McDowell last week.

Among the Little Lions’ six losses was 10-7 to District 3’s Central Dauphin (11-2), which remains alive in the Class AAAA playoffs. Another loss was to Bishop McDevitt (13-0), still alive in Class AAA. The Lions also lost 14-12 to Central Dauphin East (10-3), which reached the District 3 semifinals in Class AAAA.

State College has a 1,400-yard passer (Johnny Weakland) and a 1,300-yard rusher (Jordan Mishler). A junior, Mishler had 114 yards and two touchdowns against McDowell on 34 carries. Weakland, a senior, has thrown for 13 touchdowns.

“Their record doesn’t really indicate how good of a team they are,” Kasperowicz said. “They’re actually the most balanced team we’ve seen in the last five weeks. Altoona, McKeesport and Central Catholic were all 95 percent run.”

State College carries a three-game winning streak and has averaged 34 points per game in that span. Pine-Richland’s defense allowed just 33 points combined in its four WPIAL playoff wins.

Only Central Catholic, with a last-second touchdown, scored more than seven points against the Rams. Recognized mostly for its offense, the team’s defense has proven itself as well.

“They’ve played well all year, but they were overshadowed by our offense,” Kasperowicz said. “But especially now that the playoffs have started, defense has been a big focus of ours. I talk a lot about playoff football and championship football. To win those games, you have to play great defense.”

Prediction: Pine-Richland, 21-7.

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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