McDONALD – No matter how many quality athletes the South Fayette football program graduates, the Lions understand they have the bulls-eye on their backs. This autumn will be no different.
Despite losing 18 seniors, nine of who are playing in college, South Fayette enters the 2019 campaign as the defending WPIAL champion. The Lions own four district and two state titles under coach Joe Rossi, who enters his 13th season sporting a 156-44 record.
“The kids are used to being the target. They know but don’t talk about it. They understand the importance of tradition and how hard it is to maintain but they embrace the challenge,” explained Rossi.
“Here at South Fayette, we are fortunate to be in this position and be the one people are chasing. Our kids are always hungry to protect what we have created here. We talk about that a lot.”
While the talk amongst the players is championships, Rossi and his staff converse about how to get back to Heinz Field. To compete in the WPIAL Class 4A championship, the Lions must find a replacement at the most critical position –quarterback – as well as fill key vacancies at wide receiver and offensive line caused by Mike Trimbur’s matriculation to Cornell and Tom Elia’s departure to Richmond.
While Trimbur accounted for 16 scores and 1,096 yards by hauling in 57 passes, the Lions have depth and experience among their receiving corps. They lack seasoning at quarterback as Jamie Diven is now representing West Liberty University. In his lone season as a starter, Diven completed 189 passes for 3,211 yards and 45 TDs.
Sophomore Landon Lutz and junior Naman Alemada are in contention to fill the quarterback slot along with senior Henry Lex.
“In our system, you have to be talented and smart,” Rossi said, “and both Landon and Naman are tall, smart and know what the position means for us. They both throw the ball well. They both have shown good potential and an ability to make the throws.”
While the Lions are stepping into unknown territory regarding at quarterback, Rossi has been in this position before.
“Last year, we didn’t know about Jamie and we were pleasantly surprised. Every season, it’s year to year. You don’t know how each team will take place. You don’t know how it’s going to work out.”
Rossi believes it will work out for his quarterback because the Lions have multiple offensive options.
Drew Franklin returns to the backfield. The 5-11, 200-pound senior led the Lions in rushing with 833 yards and 10 TDs. Zach Blank and Shay Aitken have also shown the ability to run the football.
“When you lose your quarterback, it’s good to have an option like Drew coming back. He’s a good athlete,” Rossi added noting Franklin’s agility playing varsity basketball. “He can be physical. He has speed. He can do a little of everything.”
Charley Rossi does a lot for the Lions. The coach’s son had 38 receptions for 613 yards and nine touchdowns last year as a sophomore. He’s also a starter on defense at free safety.
“There’s always pressure when you are the coach’s kid but we are excited to have a leading receiver back because we lost four good guys and it’s a big position for us. He’s excited and we are thrilled because we don’t just have him. We have a deep group.”
Joey Audia mirrors the younger Rossi and will team with him on both sides of the ball. Rossi is also excited about Ryan McGuire, Luke Pschirer and Javaughn Goodnight.
“Ryan is very athletic, tall, lanky. Fits the mold of a South Fayette receiver. Luke and Javaughn look to be good receivers and Joey already has proven himself. He made some huge plays last year for us at Heinz Field.”
Heinz Field is the destination but the Lions won’t get their without developing their players up front and finding replacements for not only Elia but for Ben Coyne, who is enrolled at Carnegie Mellon.
Don Thomas looks to fill the leadership role as he is the veteran with the most experience. Quentin Franklin started on the defensive line last year but should see time on offense along with Jackson Lotinsky, Blaise Fincham, Carson Tucker and Bryce Spolnik. Dom Thomas will again join Franklin on the D-Line.
“Our line basically is a new core of kids. We have depth there and kids will go both ways but we are excited about our core players. They just need to get some reps like our quarterback. But, I believe we can get it done.”
Defensively, the Lions get it done. They allowed only 13.3 points per game last season and racked up five shutouts. They permitted just 4.6 yards rushing and 7.8 yards passing per game.
Nolan Lutz anchors the unit. The 6-1, 200-pound senior linebacker ranked among the team’s leaders with 79 tackles and three sacks last year. He’s also a returning starter at tight end.
“Nolan will be used as a receiver. He is a good weapon,” Rossi said. “We look for him to be one of the best defensive players and top tacklers in the area. He’s going to be the heart and soul back there in our defense.”
Franklin and Blank also have experience, particularly having played at Heinz Field. Aitken, Tristan Bedillion and Jimmy Matijevich give Rossi confidence in his linebacking corps, though he says the team has to develop some guys on the outside.
In the secondary, Rossi and Audia are the anchors. Pschirer, McGuire and Goodnight add depth to the group of defensive backs.
“Speed will steer defense,” Rossi added. “We have good team defense. We can run to the football. We do a good job of that.”
With Ryan Coe, South Fayette did a good job on special teams but the kicker/punter has matriculated to Delaware. Justin Caputo moves into the role and Rossi is pleased with the sophomore, who excels on the soccer team.
While the Lions continue their progress by hosting Upper St. Clair on Aug. 23 and visiting Beaver (Aug. 30) in the preseason games, Rossi expects them to be prepared to defend their Northwest Eight Conference title by the time they travel to New Castle in their opener.
“In our league, the goal is always to win the conference and continue to get better. That’s the first goal,” Rossi said. “The second is to get back to Heinz and the third is winning a state championship. We fell short of that last year so that is always in the back of our minds.