Freeport’s Romanchak, Highlands’ Gillette named Valley News Dispatch Football Players of the Year
Offensive player of the year: Austin Romanchak
QB/DB , Senior, 5-9, 160, Freeport
Austin Romanchak didn’t have a particular favorite college football player this fall, but a certain Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Oklahoma caught his eye.
“I think he’s a good example of what I was trying to be, at least,” Romanchak said of Kyler Murray, a diminutive dual-threat quarterback who led Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff.
Indeed, Murray won the Heisman after putting together an electric season that included 51 touchdowns. And while Romanchak didn’t put up numbers quite that gaudy, he still made a strong impression with his own running and passing skills.
The 5-foot-9 Romanchak helped Freeport overcome an 0-3 start to reach the WPIAL Class 3A playoffs for the second straight season, mostly by using his legs to the best of his ability as quarterback.
Romanchak rushed for 1,027 yards and 13 touchdowns and added another 545 yards and two touchdowns through the air. He didn’t stop there, catching a touchdown pass, returning two kickoffs for scores and taking an interception to the house.
For his various offensive exploits, Romanchak was selected as Valley News Dispatch Offensive Player of the Year. The younger brother of former Freeport quarterback Andrew Romanchak, Austin started for three seasons at Freeport, accounting for more than 4,000 all-purpose yards and 39 touchdowns.
Looking back, how do you feel about what you accomplished?
This season we were definitely able to accomplish a lot. We started off with three pretty tough games, and there were some tough ones we wish we could have back. But to start out 0-3 and be able to come back and win five straight games was big, and to make it to the playoffs again. I think it was very special. I think any team starting with that start, it would have been easy to quit. But the way we came together and got everything going was special.
Any games that were special?
I’d have to say the Yough game. I think we played really good as a team in every aspect. I think basically just those five games after starting 0-3 were perfect, basically.
What sticks out to you about your three years as starter?
I think honestly just the progression of myself and everybody around me. To see us go from those young freshmen looking up to everyone to the big seniors with all the experience, that was a good part of it, just to see everyone change and get better.
How big of an achievement was the back-to-back playoff trips?
It’s definitely a big achievement. That’s the first goal everyone has when they go into the season, just to make it to the playoffs. It’s nice, especially because there’s only eight teams that make the playoffs instead of 16 like there used to be. It’s definitely a bigger accomplishment, I think.
You and Conor Selinger were a great backfield tandem. What was that relationship like?
Definitely we have a strong relationship because we’ve been in the backfield together since before high school, even. It’s definitely grown as a relationship over the years because he didn’t always go to Freeport since when I started playing. He played for Highlands and then came over here. He played running back when I started playing quarterback, so we got to play together and progress both as players and be able to talk to him off the field and everything. It’s been amazing. I know for sure in eighth grade we were in the backfield together, so just to go from every level with him was awesome.
What do you feel is your best attribute as quarterback?
I’d like to say just probably extending the play if nothing was open. I was able to scramble and try to make something happen if nothing was there.
You scored touchdowns all kinds of ways — offensive, defensive and special teams. Do you have a preference?
Any way I can get points on the board. That’s my favorite.
What about any especially significant touchdowns?
I’d probably have to say my first touchdown back in my sophomore year against Vincentian. It was surreal starting as a sophomore, and to get a 50-plus-yard touchdown, I’d probably have to say that.
Do you see yourself as more of an offensive or defensive player?
I definitely see myself more as an offensive guy. I played some defense and got some awards for that, but that’s never really been my thing. I really like offense the whole way through.
How’s the college search going?
It’s going. It’s a tough process. I’m still trying to figure it all out.
Who do you have winning the NCAA football championship?
Alabama would be the easy answer, but I don’t think they’re going to win it again. It’s a tough one because I was hoping Georgia would get in. I’ll go with the underdogs: Notre Dame.
Do you have a favorite player, college or pro?
I definitely do. This year, probably not that I can think of immediately. Although I like Kyler Murray. I think he’s a good example of what I was trying to be, at least.
Do you have a favorite Christmas song?
“All I want for Christmas is you,” by Mariah Carey. That’s my Christmas song.
What’s the best gift you’ve gotten?
This year for Christmas we’re all going out to Vegas for my family, so I’d probably say a trip to Vegas is the best I’ve got.
Do you do New Year’s resolutions?
I do not.
What was your favorite pop culture thing from 2018?
Seeing “Creed 2.” I really liked “Creed 2.” I’ve watched a couple of the (older “Rocky” movies) and was into them before, but then I really started liking them when the “Creed” (movies) came out.
What do you do when you go out with friends?
We just went out bowling the other weekend.
How good are you at bowling?
I’m probably a little bit above average, nothing spectacular. I’ve bowled in the 200s probably once or twice, and usually like 150 to 180.
Last question … better quarterback, you or Andrew?
One-hundred percent me. (No), I think I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt: I think if we’re saying quarterback, he’s a lot better passer than I was. I’d say we’re the same since he’s a lot better passer than I was, but he knows he can’t run like I could. So I’ll split it 50/50 with him.
Defensive player of the year: Noah Gillette
FB/LB, Senior, 5-10, 190, Highlands
Noah Gillette volunteers with the Harrison Hills Volunteer Fire Company in his spare time. The work provides him with a boost of adrenaline.
He is familiar with that kind of adrenaline, as it’s the same kind he feels when he makes a tackle — and he had plenty of those this fall.
Although Highlands missed out on the WPIAL playoffs in 2018, Gillette had a monster performance in 10 games. He broke the Highlands single-season record for tackles, his total of 120 topping the previous record of 114 set by Mitch DeZort, and added seven sacks and three fumble recoveries.
Gillette didn’t just break the school record, he also more than doubled the amount of Highlands’ next-best tackler this season on his way to getting named to the Class 4A Northwest Eight’s all-conference first team at inside linebacker.
At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Gillette still packed a considerable punch, and for his efforts he was named the Valley News Dispatch Defensive Player of the Year.
Gillette won’t play football in college, instead signing to play baseball at Pitt-Johnstown. But he picked the right way to go out.
How do you feel about your season?
Going into the season, knowing that we lost a ton of seniors that were key players on defense, we didn’t know what to expect about who was going to play where and just what we were going to have. We just went out there and made sure that we had the young guys who stepped up knew what they were doing. The young guys were going to give it their all on the field.
How did your role change as a senior?
I feel like I had to take a little more leadership, make sure the young kids knew what they were doing and that we weren’t just out there to have fun but also win a football game and play our hearts out.
You broke the single-season record for tackles. What does that mean to you?
It was one of the biggest achievements I had in high school, and it was just something that I love to do, so it was just cool to do.
It wasn’t the win/loss record you wanted, but were there any games or moments that are memorable for you?
Beaver. We won that game. Nobody really expected us to go out and beat Beaver because they hung around with South Fayette and stuff, so I don’t think anybody really expected us to go out and play a game and be able to beat them. We came together after a couple tough losses early in the season and were able to come back and win a football game.
What do you remember most about your time at Highlands?
It’s a family there. We all are family.
What do you think is your best skill as a defensive player?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that one. I feel like it’s just going out there and playing with heart. If you make a mistake, just go out there and make another play.
What’s the feeling when you make a big tackle?
It’s just a big adrenaline rush.
Who’s the best offensive team you’ve faced?
South Fayette. They’re just a very well-rounded team. It starts out with their line: Their line is pretty big and strong, and then they just have talent at wide receiver and running back and especially quarterback.
You’re playing baseball in college. What led you to that decision?
It was a very tough decision, but it came to me that I wasn’t really hearing anything from any football schools. The baseball coach needed to know whether to mark me down or let me go. I wasn’t really hearing anything, so I was like, I might as well take the chance I have right now.
Do you think baseball fits you?
Yeah, but I’m going to miss football. There’s nothing like going on the field and leveling somebody.
Do you have a favorite football player?
No, not really.
Do you follow football closely?
No, I’m not really into it. I mean, I’ll watch the game every once in a while, but I don’t follow anybody around.
So no favorite college or pro team?
No, but I always support the Steelers.
What’s your favorite Christmas song?
Oh, my gosh. I don’t know. They’re overplayed. They’re all overplayed.
Do you think Christmas as a whole is overplayed?
No, I don’t mind it. But they start playing Christmas music around November.
What’s your favorite part about Christmas?
My family coming around, and we all hang out together.
Do you have a big tradition?
Yeah, we all have Christmas dinner at my house and then we kind of go around to the aunts and uncles.
Do you have a favorite Christmas gift that you’ve received?
No, not really. They’re all good.
What did you ask for this year?
Some tools and stuff. I like to do woodworking and stuff and building.
What else do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a volunteer firefighter, so I like to go hang out there with a couple of the fire hall buddies. It’s something I like to do to take my mind off things.
Where do you volunteer?
How long have you done it?
Two or three years now.
What do you like about it?
It’s another big adrenaline rush.
Have you fought a lot of fires?
Every once in a while we get a couple calls, but not too big anymore around here.
First team All-Stars
Leechburg, jr., RB/LB
Rushed for 833 yards and 10 touchdowns to lead Blue Devils to first .500 season in nearly 30 years. Added 66 tackles and three interceptions on defense.
Highlands, sr., QB/DB
He passed for 1,777 yards and 21 touchdowns, in so doing becoming the first player in A-K Valley history to surpass 4,000 career passing yards.
Kiski Area, sr., WR/DB
He became Kiski Area’s all-time leading receiver, pulling in 40 passes for 692 yards and five scores. He added two interceptions on defense, including a pick-six.
Deer Lakes, sr., WR/DB
He finished second on the Lancers in receiving, pulling in 37 passes, including five touchdowns, and was shutdown corner on defense.
Highlands, jr., WR/LB
The 6-foot-6 threat caught 40 passes for 796 yards and 10 touchdowns, setting three single-game school receiving records against Keystone Oaks.
Kiski Area, sr., RB/LB
Cavaliers’ all-time leading tackler had 89, plus six sacks, despite missing two games. He also rushed for five touchdowns.
Leechburg, sr., K/P/DB/WR
A first-team all-conference pick at punter and kicker, Blumer flipped the field consistently and also played in the field.
Apollo-Ridge, so., QB/WR/DB
He played all over the field for Vikings, passing for 662 yards, catching 17 passes, intercepting two passes and accounting for 10 touchdowns.
Knoch, sr., RB/LB
He broke Knoch’s regular-season rushing record with 1,441 yards, averaging 7.6 per carry. He added 58 tackles, including eight for loss, and an interception on defense.
Deer Lakes, jr., QB
Dual-threat quarterback passed for 1,633 yards and 15 touchdowns and rushed for 490 yards and five scores for resurgent Lancers.
Valley, sr., TE/DL
Explosive pass rusher registered double-digit sacks for a second consecutive season, including five in a season-opening win over Burrell.
Deer Lakes, sr., TE/LB
First-team all-conference tight end finished first on the team in receiving, with 42 receptions, 491 yards and five touchdowns.
Leechburg, sr., FB/LB
Center of Leechburg’s defense led the team with 103 tackles, registering a pair of sacks. Offensively, he rushed for 502 yards and five touchdowns.
Burrell, sr., RB/LB
He led Bucs’ offensive attack with 1,025 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, including 304 and four against Uniontown. He had 83 tackles and a pick-six on defense.
Kiski Area, sr., TE/LB
Duquesne recruit was fast and physical, catching 32 passes for 583 yards and four touchdowns and adding 70 tackles and eight sacks on defense.
Knoch, sr., OL/DL
First-team all-conference guard led the way for Knoch’s powerful Wing-T attack, consistently grading above 90 percent in his blocking performances.
Plum, so., WR/DB
Two-way standout caught 33 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns on offense and added 66 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions on defense.
Burrell, sr., OL/LB
A fixture in the middle on offense and defense, Mele led the Bucs’ defense with 98 tackles and also recovered five fumbles.
Valley, sr., RB/DL
Powerful downhill runner rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns, both career highs, and added a passing score and a defensive pick-six.
Freeport, jr., TE/DL
He led the Yellowjackets in tackles for loss (13) and sacks (six), finishing with 56 tackles total. He caught one touchdown on offense.
Valley, sr., OL/DL
Heavyweight on the wrestling mat was a mauler on the football field, earning all-conference honors on offense and ranking among the Vikings’ tackle leaders.
Freeport, sr., RB/LB
Despite missing time to injury, Selinger rushed for 716 yards and 12 touchdowns and led Yellowjackets defense with 75 tackles.
Kiski Area, sr., QB
In first full season as starter, he led the A-K Valley with 1,851 passing yards, plus 16 touchdowns, to take Cavaliers to playoffs.
Isiah Bauman, Freeport, jr., WR/DB
Ben Blacksmith, Riverview, sr., WR/DB
Jarrett Bricker, Knoch, sr., OL/LB
Sam Brown, Fox Chapel, jr., RB/DB
Dylan Cook, Leechburg, so., QB/DB
Pierce Craven, Freeport, jr., OL/DL
Seth Fischbach, Burrell, jr., WR/DB
Dane Fitzsimmons, Kiski Area, sr., TE/LB
Scott Fraser, Knoch, jr., DB
Brandon Green, Springdale, jr., LB/RB
Billy Guzzi, Plum, so., RB/DB
Jack Hollibaugh, Deer Lakes, jr., TE/LB
Ricky Hunter, Freeport, jr., K/P/LB
Josh Jones, Springdale, sr., DB/QB
Patrick Keeley, Freeport, sr., LB/RB/QB
Chase Mullen, Knoch, sr., QB/DB/P
Keighton Reese, Apollo-Ridge, so., WR/DB
Malique Richardson, Valley, sr., WR/DB
Mikey Scherer, Burrell, jr., RB/LB
Korey Simmons, Fox Chapel, sr., WR/DB
Blake Sgambati, Springdale, jr., OL/DL
J.D. Sykes, Riverview, sr., RB/LB
Cam Taylor, Highlands, sr., RB/LB
Dan Thimons, Highlands, sr., OL/DL
Nico Venanzio, Leechburg, sr., TE/LB
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at [email protected] or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.