Pine-Richland, Slomka dismantle McKeesport in Class AAAA semifinals
The last time Pine-Richland was in this position, the Rams were a Class AAA football program, and Pirates second baseman Neil Walker was one of their stars.
That was 2003, when they won a WPIAL championship and claimed a PIAA crown, losing in double-overtime to Manheim Central in the title game.
Eleven years later, playing as a Class AAAA program, top-seeded Pine-Richland is following a similar script, advancing to another WPIAL championship game.
Ben DiNucci passed for 272 yards, completing 22 of 26 passes, and Connor Slomka rushed for 179 yards and scored five touchdowns to extend his school-record to 32 as the Rams dismantled fifth-seeded McKeesport, 42-7, on Friday night at North Allegheny.
Pine-Richland (12-0) will face third-seeded Central Catholic (11-1) for the Class AAAA championship Friday at Heinz Field.
“This is great for our seniors, great for our team. This isn’t about me,” said Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz, who led North Hills to WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA titles in 1993. “They wanted it tonight, and they don’t want it to end.”
Mike Merhaut, like DiNucci and Slomka, a senior, caught 11 passes for 104 yards for Pine-Richland.
Once the Rams got a lead, they couldn’t be stopped. They led at halftime 21-7 as DiNucci completed 18 of 21 passes, including his first eight, for 187 yards.
They added a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter to seal the win after McKeesport squandered a chance to pull within a touchdown. Brendan Burnham intercepted a pass by McKeesport quarterback Tymar Sutton on fourth down in the end zone after the Tigers marched to the Pine-Richland 6-yard line.
“Oh boy, that was really tough,” McKeesport coach George Smith said. “That would have made it 21-14. That was a huge part of the game for us. Our kids played their hearts out. They were overachievers this year, and I’m very proud of them.”
It was just the third loss for McKeesport (10-2) in Smith’s two years since returning as coach following a three-year hiatus.
Five receivers caught passes for Pine-Richland in the first half, led by Merhaut (eight) and Luke Everett (six).
Everett caught a 13-yard pass from DiNucci in the second quarter to give Pine-Richland its 14-point lead at the break after Slomka scored on runs of 1 and 5 yards on Pine-Richland’s first two possessions.
The second score came after Sutton’s errant pitch was recovered by Pine-Richland at the McKeesport 45.
“This is a crucial game,” Smith said of the semifinals. “To win this game, you’ve got to be a studly bunch.”
Smith’s teams during his first tenure as coach at McKeesport won two PIAA championships.
After Slomka’s first two touchdown runs, McKeesport closed within 14-7 on Sutton’s 85-yard touchdown burst down the left sideline.
“We were a little unsure coming in just what to expect because McKeesport runs that option offense so well,” Kasperowicz said. “I thought possibly that would happen a little more often.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].