The headline on a sports page in the Nov. 28 New Pittsburgh Courier read, “There is no stopping Penn Hills,” referring to the city’s beloved high school football team that won the WPIAL 5A Championship over West Allegheny five days earlier.
At that point, the Penn Hills Indians were undefeated at 14-0.
Turns out they were just getting started.
Why be the best Class 5A team in Western Pennsylvania, when you have playmakers like Daequan Hardy, Hollis Mathis, Terry “Tank” Smith, Corey Thomas Jr. and Dante Cephas?
Thus, two weeks after winning the WPIAL title, Penn Hills messed around and won the whole shebang—the PIAA Class 5A State Championship.
Thanks to another beloved figure—Bill Fralic, the Penn Hills and Pitt star whom also had a standout career in the NFL—the entire Penn Hills football team was able to stay at a hotel near Hershey the night before the Dec. 7 championship game. All costs were covered by Fralic.
The Indians were well-rested for their opponent, Manheim Central, out of Lancaster County. At one point in the Friday night affair, Penn Hills had a 36-14 lead, thanks to an incredulous performance by Hardy, who put the official scorer to work. Hardy scored on a 100-yard interception (one of his three interceptions in the game), an 84-yard kickoff return, and two receptions of 74 and 27 yards.
“Tank” Smith rushed for 103 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown, Mathis threw for 195 yards with three touchdowns, and Cephas added a team-high four receptions for 66 yards.
Defensively, Jordy Boswell, Devyn Best, Richard Martin and Smith each recorded a sack for Penn Hills, while Manheim Central recorded no sacks on the Indians’ quarterback, Mathis.
Manheim Central scored 11 points in the fourth quarter to make the final score a respectable 36-31, but the more than 1,800 fans in attendance on a frigid night at Hersheypark Stadium could testify that Penn Hills was in control for most of the game.
The renowned Fralic was able to watch his Indians win the championship, before passing away Dec. 13 from cancer.
On Dec. 15, the celebration really kicked into gear—a parade (despite the rain) and an A-list of speakers and notables who were present at a ceremony at the school’s auditorium following the parade.
“It was a big win for our community,” Stephanie Strauss, Penn Hills’ athletic director, told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “The community rallied around the team,” which included community members, teachers and other Penn Hills staff members donating money to help pay for the players’ meals while they were in Hershey.
And as for head coach Jon Ledonne: “He came from Aliquippa, a similar type of school, he got to know the players and strengths in football and the system he created really worked well,” Strauss said.
Last Wednesday, Dec. 19, the first day of the National Letter of Intent early period, Mathis officially signed to play college football at William & Mary. Strauss called Mathis “a great leader,” who “really took control of the offense.”
Cephas will attend Kent State University. Neither Hardy nor Smith have made a final determination where they will play college ball.
As it stands now, Big Red is atop the state’s Class 5A high school football ladder, the school’s first state title since 1995. Though it’s been 23 years between titles, many in Penn Hills believe the title is back home, where it should be.
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