Goin' Campin' is Varsity Blog's series that hits the road to give you notes, quotes, anecdotes and everything else from district football preseason camps.
Before we get to our stops today on Goin' Campin', let's look at the photo below and play a quick game of "Who's The Better Coach?"
No, silly. Old singer Frankie Avalon didn't show up at Steeler camp. You might have thought that, right? It's none other than Upper St. Clair basketball coach Danny Holzer rubbing elbows at Steelers camp with Mike Tomlin.
Hey, Holzer does have three WPIAL titles.
OK, enough about basketball coaches. Onto Goin' Campin' talk from Tuesday.
First stop: Pine-Richland
OK, I haven't been to a Pine-Richland practice in years. I think since Neil Walker was a senior. I haven't had reason to go. But this could be Pine-Richland's best team since Walker was a senior and helped the Rams win a WPIAL title.
The first thing a newcomer to Pine-Richland practice has to notice is the sound in the stadium. Walking up to the place, music was blaring. This isn't unusual, though. Coach Eric Kasperowicz says his team plays music every practice. He started playing the tunes last season.
"We do it the whole practice," Kasperowicz said. "Just for distractions. We're an up-tempo, no-huddle team. We do all our coaching from film afterward. We're just trying to create as many distractions as we can to get used to it."
The Eagles were playing when I walked in. I know, a little old. Who picks the music?
"My one assistant coach," said Kasperowicz. "We have some classic. Some rock. I'm a big country guy so I have some Luke Bryan in there. We've got a nice mix. My daughter wanted that, what's it called, Iggy song?"
You mean "Fancy?"
"The kids like it," Kasperowicz said.
Pine-Richland is thinking big this year because 10 starters return on offense and eight on defense. Some believe they will definitely challenge for a Northern Eight Conference championship. But Pine-Richland has never finished higher than fourth in the conference since moving from Class AAA to AAAA in 2008. Many are taking the Rams seriously this season, but are they indeed one of the elite teams in the conference? They will have to finally prove it on the field to get the respect they want.
"I think it's a big year for the program," said Kasperowicz. "Since we've been in Quad-A, we've had a tough time. Now we have a nice core group of kids. I think it's a good year to make some waves. These kids are coachable. They've worked their butts off. But this such a tough league."
Below, Kasperowicz addresses the team after practice. With that hat, he's doing his best Gilligan imitation from "Gilligan's Island."
Skill of the Rams
Just going by statistics and experience, Pine-Richland has to have one of the best offenses in the WPIAL. Ten starters return from an offense that averaged 32 points a game.
Quarterback Ben DiNucci (pictured) returns after finishing fourth in the WPIAL in passing yardage during the regular season. He completed 142 of 200 for 1,890 yards. Receiver D'ondre Gaston was second in the WPIAL in receptions with 53. Running back Connor Slomka rushed for 1,095 yards. DiNucci already has committed to Pennsylvania of the Ivy League and Slomka will attend West Point. He originally was going to play lacrosse at Ohio State, but changed his mind.
"Obviously, I'm biased," said Kasperowicz. "But I think we've got the best quarterback, and probably the best running back and probably the best receiver in Quad-A. Gaston is the one who is overlooked. As a sophomore, he had zero receptions. Then look at him last year. The improvement he made is unbelievable."
Help from Dad
There is a man on the sideline at Pine-Richland practices doing anything and everything. He knows the names and sizes seemingly of every player. Eric Kasperowicz calls him "Dad." He is Mark Kasperowicz.
"Call him a sideline assistant," said Eric. "He retired from work two years ago. It's nice to have him around."
Dad said with a laugh, "I'm a water boy, but I do everything from water to fixing a helmet. I enjoy it."
Next stop: Quaker Valley
The Quakers made more noise last year than they have in decades. They finished 8-3 overall and won a WPIAL playoff game. With some talented skill-position players returning, optimism is in the air at Quaker Valley, er, Cornell.
Quaker Valley is having the first three days of preseason camp at Cornell High School. The players sleep in the auditorium at Cornell. Odd? Not really if you know the background.
Cornell folded its football program after the 2011 season. Cornell students can play for Quaker Valley under a cooperative sponsorship. This year, 12 Quaker Valley players are from Cornell, including star quarterback-defensive back Dane Jackson (pictured). He already has accepted a scholarship from Pitt to play defensive back. Receivers Blake Lipke and Zacchaeus Humphrey are two other Cornell players expected to make big contributions.
"Usually, we have a three day camp at Quaker Valley where the kids stay there," said Quaker Valley coach John Tortorea. "We wanted to go away this year. So this worked out. We are away without going away. It is a wonderful thing for us to come here to Cornell and do this. It gives the kids over here a chance to be in their own community, at their own school, using their own facilities. It gives these [Cornell] kids their own feel."
So there is a high school team in Frank Letteri Stadium in Coraopolis again, if only for a few days. And it's a big team, at least for Quaker Valley. The Quakers have 57 players now and might dress 65.
"I think we had 40 my first year here," said Tortorea, who is in his fourth season.
Quaker Valley must replace all of its linemen, but Tortorea likes his skill-position players. One of them is receiver Chris Conlan, the son of former Penn State and NFL linebacker Shane Conlan.
"Richmond and William & Mary offered. He'll probably decide between those two," Tortorea said of Conlan.
As for the offense?
"Every skill-position player is back," said Tortorea. "We have Aaron Cunningham and Trewon Marshall back at running back. Everyone talks about Dane and Chris, but those two are the ones that make us go."
Last stop: North Hills
Actually, this was my last stop Monday, but we saved it for today. Practice at Martorelli Stadium. To me there is not a better place in the WPIAL to watch a game, as far as setting and atmosphere.
(Photo is of two North Hills players taking a coach "sled riding."
As for the North Hills team, it seems a number of coaches believe North Hills could be the sleeper in the Northern Eight. There is Central Catholic and although North Allegheny lost a lot of key players, you know the Tigers will still be good. Seneca Valley and Pine-Richland have a lot of experienced players, but don't sleep on North Hills. Second-year coach Pat Carey seems to be trying to hang low and surprise some teams.
Two keys to North Hills: Can the Indians develop a quality running back, and the foot of Jake Bruder?
North Hills has lacked that explosive running back in a number of recent seasons. As for Bruder, he is back for his second season as a starter. But he played in only a few games last year before sustaining a broken ankle, which ended his season.
Bruder showed promise last season and is now back. He runs well and is a capable thrower. His play will be vital to the Indians' success. Kindhal Taylor, who moved from receiver to quarterback to take over for Bruder last season, is back at receiver.