In the world of high school-football fandom, Texas fans are often credited as the most rabid. But without question, we here in Western Pennsylvania are a very close second. When it comes to high school football, maybe only Texans love it the way we do here.
When you get down to it, the game is simply children, most of whom can’t even vote, throwing wobbly passes to other kids. But the bleachers are packed every Friday, and we even put games on television. Outside of Texas and Western Pa., that kind of devotion to youth sports sounds crazy.
Like any sport, some teams are better than others, mostly because larger schools have a bigger pool of talent to choose from. To keep things fair, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, more commonly known as the WPIAL, reconfigured its divisions so schools of roughly the same size would be in the same division. At the top of the heap is class 6A, reserved for the big-bully powerhouse schools that routinely churn out Division 1 and 2 college players. This grouping was meant to create a division of peers and foster competition among the big schools. This year, however, one school has shown that it’s in a class by itself.
The Pine-Richland Rams are having one of those seasons that fans will be talking about in 30 years. In 2048, someone in Gibsonia will be telling tales of the magical 2017 campaign. A lot of that has been because of quarterback Phil Jurkovec. He’s so good that he’s been the target of sleazy college recruiters since he got out of middle school.
Jurkovec’s snail-mail box has been stuffed with offers from every college in the country with a football team. He is the most sought-after WPIAL recruit probably since Jeannette’s Terrelle Pryor. Earlier in the year, Jurkovec announced that he will continue his football career at Notre Dame next season. I’m sure Touchdown Jesus raised his hands in approval. But before he could get to South Bend, Jurkovec first had to play through a brutal WPIAL Division 6A schedule against some monster teams.
By all accounts, Peters Township is a really good football team, but its record sits at 5-1 after running into Pine-Richland. And it’s not like it was a close game: The Rams gave Peters a 56-7 beatdown. Maybe Peters Township just had an off night, but everyone who tangles with the Rams has one of those days. Penn Hills, a perennial powerhouse, is also 5-1 after they suffered a 43-6 loss to Pine-Richland. In two games, Pine-Richland outscored two good teams 99-13. The games are so lopsided that they actually mute Jurkovec’s stats because the coach winds up sitting him once the score gets ridiculous.
Pine-Richland has become this season’s monster-slayer, disposing of average teams without breaking a sweat and great teams with aplomb. Bethel Park, also 5-1, lost to the Rams 54-20. And the list goes on. Central Catholic High School, where the great Dan Marino played, went down 47-17 to Pine-Richland. Mount Lebanon, a school with a lot of championships in its trophy case, managed to score 29 against Jurkovec’s Rams. Unfortunately for Mount Lebo, Pine-Richland put up 53.
This team is facing the best competition it can find and still dominates in a league full of legendary football programs. Peters Township, Central Catholic, Bethel Park, Penn Hills and Mount Lebanon are a combined 25-4 against any team that doesn’t have a Jurkovec on it. Against Pine-Richland, those five teams are 0-5 and have been ruthlessly outscored, 243-79. Butler and Shaler are upcoming opponents, and they have roughly a 0 percent chance of derailing this train. The only team with a slight shot is North Allegheny, but if past games are any indication, NA will lose 49-16.
Jurkovec’s stats are lit, but the most impressive number is his completion percentage. So far this year, he has completed 77 percent of his passes. The only quarterback in WPIAL history (with at least 2,000 yards passing in a season) to complete even 70 percent of his passes is now quarterbacking at Pitt — Ben DiNucci, and he went to Pine-Richland too. The offense around Jukovec has been outstanding all season. You need a good offensive line and some pretty sure-handed receivers to have a QB who completes almost 80 percent of his attempts. Jurkovec is a special player, and there’s still time to see him before he goes off to become Notre Dame’s newest golden boy. He’ll likely be playing in next month’s WPIAL finals at Heinz Field.
After that, it’s probably off to Hershey to play for a state title before heading to Indiana. The great quarterback tradition of Western Pennsylvania continues. Maybe Texas isn’t so special after all.