Early-season matchup a pivot point

By: Wednesday, September 12, 2018, TRIB-LIVE

Sam Albert hates to lose, emphasizing that feeling twice as he discussed his Kiski Area football team’s seven-point setback at North Hills in Week 2.

But even he found something to appreciate in the Cavaliers’ 35-28 defeat, one in which they trailed throughout but kept battling back before ultimately falling a touchdown short.

“I was proud of the kids more in the fact that they go up two scores (and) a year ago, we would have quit,” Albert said. “This year, we come right back and fought to the very end. I was very proud of them that way.

“We learned that our kids will compete the whole game against anybody. Of course, I never like to lose … but if there is a silver lining to it, we found out what we’re about. We won’t quit. Our kids will come to play every down.”

The Cavaliers, who won one game in 2017, Albert’s first year at the helm, already have exceeded that total heading into Friday night’s Class 5A Northern Conference matchup with Fox Chapel at Richard J. Dilts Field. But there’s a long way to go if Kiski Area (2-1, 1-1) hopes to achieve its goal of making the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2015.

And if any team can attest to the value of a long season, it’s Fox Chapel (0-3, 0-2), which is off to a slow start after graduating 10 offensive and nine defensive starters from last season’s WPIAL playoff qualifier. The Foxes started 1-4 last season before closing the year on a five-game winning streak to earn a spot in the postseason. They also won their final five games in 2016 after an 0-5 start. That team finished one game out of the playoffs.

“(I tell the younger players) don’t count us out,” senior Korey Simmons said. “You guys need to keep repping because the last two or three years, we’ve lost at the beginning of the season and picked it up towards the later end.”

Friday’s game marks an important pivot point in the season for both teams: A Kiski Area win would put the Cavaliers further down the playoff road, and a Fox Chapel win could trigger the start of another turnaround.

“It’s one thing to be down. It’s another thing to stay down and accept it,” Fox Chapel coach Tom Loughran said. “We’re preaching to our guys it happened. We can’t change it. We’re looking for improvement. Given the opportunity, we only get 10 chances. This is our fourth one, so we want to take advantage of it.”

A slow start seemed inevitable for the Foxes, given their heavy graduation losses — including star quarterback Nick Gizzo and running back Micah Morris, both 1,000-yard rushers, not to mention an entire offensive line that included Bryant recruit Jesse Cohen. Fox Chapel also played two of the top teams in the conference, North Hills and Penn Hills, over the past two weeks.

“We understand that sometimes you prepare, and you do the best you can and the other team’s playing, too,” Loughran said. “If they make more plays than you do, then you have to understand we have to learn from what we’ve done incorrectly and try to get better at what we’re doing.

“We preach to our guys that we’re never going to give up on you, so don’t give up on yourselves. We’re going to keep coaching you up every day, and we’re going to try to keep you moving in a positive direction. Hopefully, they understand that.”

That’s a similar message to what Albert, a coaching veteran with stops at Valley, Butler, Freeport and Highlands before coming to Kiski Area, preached to the Cavaliers all throughout the 2017 season. The positivity is beginning to pay off: Kiski Area won its first two games of the season and is showing improved play on both sides of the ball.

“Within two years here, I feel like I’ve been here for 20 years,” Albert said. “I feel like they’re all in, I feel like they’re all my sons — just like everywhere (else) I’ve been, but it’s taken a while (in those places). These guys, I’m right there with them.”

Although Kiski Area and Fox Chapel have played 21 times since 1982, with the Cavaliers holding 12 wins in the series, the teams last met in 2011 — making for yet another unfamiliar opponent in a newly formed conference.

“I haven’t known anybody we played yet,” Kiski Area senior Troy Kuhn said. “I like it that way. I think it’s good for us because everyone’s just going in with a clear mind. We haven’t played these teams. Past Kiski teams, if we’ve known the (opposing) team, we’ve gotten down; we’ve already kind of accepted the loss. This year, we’re just going in with a clear head and playing football.”

Senior quarterback Ryne Wallace has five touchdown passes for Kiski Area, with wide receiver Jack Colecchi and tight end Kuhn both over 200 yards receiving. Linebackers Drew Dinunzio-Biss, Dane Fitzsimmons and Kuhn have a combined seven sacks.

Junior Shane Susnak took over as Fox Chapel’s quarterback and has 319 yards passing, with seniors Simmons and Cole Waxter his top targets. Loughran said he’s hoping for more consistency on offense and better tackling on defense after last week’s 46-0 loss to high-powered Penn Hills.

“We’re getting better and better every week,” Simmons said. “I know some of the kids, it’s their first year playing varsity. These past few games, it’s their only three games starting. So they’re definitely getting used to the atmosphere. I know it’s completely different from the JV mornings to Friday night lights. I feel like they’re definitely slowly getting used to it, and they’ll be fully into it in a matter of no time.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.