New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Fans looking to attend Neshannock High football’s first WPIAL playoff game in eight years will need to be road warriors.
The thirteenth-seeded Lancers will travel two hours south to Waynesburg High School to take on fourth-seeded Jefferson-Morgan at 7:30 p.m. today.
Originally to be played at the Rocket’s home grass, the game was moved six miles up the street to the field turf at Waynesburg High School by the WPIAL on Wednesday. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and the potential for muddy conditions on the grass surface encouraged the decision.
Regardless as to where his team plays, Lancers first-year head coach Fred Mozzocio looks forward to the challenge.
“We’ve been pretty good on the road this year,” Mozzocio said. “We take our road games like they’re a business trip. We take a professional attitude when we go to these games. We go down there and take care of business. We’ll go anywhere to play football.”
The Lancers finished 4-1 on the road this season with their only loss being to conference rival Rochester, 28-21.
Neshannock (8-1) shared the Class A Big Seven Conference championship with Rochester (8-1) and Sto-Rox (8-1) this season to earn a spot in the playoffs. A 41-3 loss to Seton-La Salle in 2004 was the result of the team’s last appearance in the postseason tournament.
The Rockets (7-2) finished in a three-way tie for second in the Class A Tri-County South Conference.
Jefferson-Morgan has been no stranger to the WPIAL playoffs recently. This will be the team’s eighth appearance in the tournament since 2000. The Rockets are 2-7 in that stretch, including their most recent loss in 2009 to North Catholic, 38-3.
“The Rockets are definitely a formidable opponent,” Mozzocio said. “Any time you’re playing a team and they have a 7-2 record, they’re doing something right.”
The winner of this opening-round clash will play the winner of the Monessen-Apollo-Ridge game Nov. 9 at a time and site to be determined.
This matchup has the potential to be a shootout. Neshannock has averaged 42 points a game, while the Rockets score 37 a game.
Jefferson-Morgan coach Liam Ryan is hoping his defense will be able to stop the explosive spread offense of the Lancers.
“Their quarterback is what makes their offense tick,” Ryan said. “They do a good job spreading it out to a lot of different ball carriers. They do a nice job of mixing up their carries.”
Neshannock junior quarterback Ernie Burkes is a dual-threat, rushing for 625 yards and passing for 1,241 with 14 touchdowns during the regular season. Burkes has connected with nine different receivers this season, but relies heavily on Alex Welker, 533 yards on 31 receptions, and John Conglose, 512 yards on 36 catches, to make plays.
Running back Eli Owens (919 yards on 125 carries) also has been a consistent and dangerous threat for the team this season.
The Lancers blend their attack while running a no-huddle offense that has become a challenge to game plan for the Rockets coach.
“Their no huddle offense is something different they bring,” Ryan said. “Other than in two-minute situations, we don’t see that from teams in our section.”
Jefferson-Morgan’s offense is led by running back Dustin Conti. Primarily a running team, Conti has 1,017 yards on 100 carries with 13 total touchdowns.
“They have a very strong running game,” Mozzocio said. “Conti is an elusive back with breakaway speed. Their offensive line has a bunch of nice-sized kids who can move around with some mobility.”
The size and mobility of the defensive line of Jefferson-Morgan also is a concern for Mozzocio. The Rockets’ defensive line includes Brandon Pelosi (6-feet, 230-pounds) and Fred Clark (6-9, 350-pounds) as catalysts for a unit that has given up 16 points a game. Conti leads the team in sacks with eight.
“We’ll have our hands full,” he said. “We’re going to have to be ready to go down there and do our thing. Clark moves really well for his size. He’s a kid we’ll have our eye on (tonight), and we’ll know where he’s at.”
Along with the juggernauts clogging the middle for the Rockets, the team’s defensive backfield has excelled. Jeff Jento is a player to watch for with his team-leading three interceptions.
“They have some athletic defensive backs,” Mozzocio said. “They definitely do a good job filling on the run and covering the pass at the same time.”
With how well the offense has played for the Lancers, not much is said about the defensive side of the football for the team. Like Jefferson-Morgan, Neshannock has surrendered an average of 16 points per game.
“I think their front-seven is pretty aggressive,” Ryan said. “You don’t see one player in particular stick out, as they do a good job as a unit running toward the football. We have to keep as much balance as we can.”
Neshannock’s defense comes to the contest battle-tested in big games. It was able to hold the Class A Eastern League champions North Catholic (7-2) to seven points in a 41-7 blowout two weeks ago.