When Don Holl packed up his family and moved south from Erie to Cranberry Township to be the new football coach at Seneca Valley, no one tried to talk him out of it.
But he was warned: Winning won’t be easy.
There was the tough competition in the Quad North.
A tradition of losing tradition at the school, which has qualified for the WPIAL playoffs twice in this decade. And, in case you haven’t noticed, the decade is waning.
Plus, Seneca Valley’s offense lost a great passing combination from last season (quarterback C.J. Brown and wide receiver Matt Plautz), and its returning linemen are a bunch of nice, smart, hard-working kids, whose only sin is a grave one — they aren’t very big.
He brought with him a smart offensive mind, a reputation for building winning teams and — not so insignificantly — a junior quarterback who breaks bread at his table (his son Donny Jr.). Another boost: The return of several assistants with Seneca Valley ties, including Intermediate School principal Al Cumo, who was defensive coordinator under Terry Henry in past glory days.
All of sudden, a little more than halfway through the season, Seneca Valley’s Quad North opponents looked up this week and found the Raiders 3-3 overall, 1-1 in the conference, after Holl Jr. scored a touchdown with 31 seconds left last Friday to upset North Hills, 21-14, at rowdy Raider Stadium. OK, it’s really Nextier Stadium, but Raider Stadium just sounds like a place where football is played; Nextier sounds like bank (which it is).
The game was won on special teams, as much as anywhere. Will Hugo kicked the two longest field goals in school history (50 and 42 yards) and punter Pete Vicente, a starting wide receiver who was considered for the quarterback job over the summer, pinned North Hills at the 1 late in the game.
After the game, Holl credited assistant coach Larry Wendereusz, a Seneca Valley grad and longtime coach, for reminding his special teams players about the little things. Finally, they paid dividends.
Seneca Valley may not qualify for the playoffs this season, because it must play Shaler (5-1) and visit Pine-Richland in its next two games. Shaler lost to first-place North Allegheny last week, but for part of that game, the Titans had the best of the talented NA front.
Still, three or four victories are better than many critics expected this season at Seneca Valley. Maybe a solid foundation is in place.
By Saturday night, there will be only two weeks left in the regular season. The four-week WPIAL playoff journey begins Nov. 6 and ends the day of Thanksgiving at Heinz Field.
Here are some interesting facts about teams likely to reach the playoffs:
Jeannette is tied for second place in the Class AA Interstate Conference, a game behind its opponent next week Mt. Pleasant. If Jeannette reaches the playoffs (and it won’t be easy with six teams 4-2 or better), it will be the 16th consecutive time that has happened at the school, a WPIAL record for consistency. Jeannette has had one losing season since 1968 (1993).
Thomas Jefferson has nailed down its 15th consecutive playoff berth and Aliquippa will clinch No. 15 in a row very soon. More on the Jaguars during and after its game tonight against Chartiers Valley.
Four teams are tied for second place behind first-place Bethel Park in the Quad West, and if Upper St. Clair emerges to grab one of the four playoff berths, it will be the 22nd time that has happened in the past 23 years. The exception: 1999, two years after USC won its fourth of five WPIAL championships.