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A lot to offer:Talented crop brings recruiting buzz to Westmoreland County

September 3, 2018
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Norwin's Jayvon Thrift, Latrobe's Trent Holler, Jeannette's Marcus Barnes, and Norwin's Gianni Rizzo, pose for a portrait, at Norwin High School, in North Huntingdon Twp., on Friday, July 20, 2018.

Norwin is humming with football attention on the eve of a new season.

Yes, Norwin.

Knights Stadium was selected to host the WPIAL Class 5A championship game. It will be the first time since the mid 1980′s that a WPIAL football final will be played at a high school field.

Norwin can’t play in the final because the Knights are in Class 6A -- with its single, stand-alone, nine-team conference. But by Nov. 23, the date of the title game in North Huntingdon, Norwin might have put itself in a position to compete for its own championship -- at Heinz Field, the site of the 6A, 4A, 3A and A finals the week before.

These Knights say why not?

With a talented pair of college prospects ready to lead the way, Norwin has some electricity running through its wires for the first time in years.

Seniors Jayvon Thrift and Gianni Rizzo are a gifted pair, a combination of speed and range, smarts and athleticism, and have attracted some big-name college offers.

But Norwin isn’t the only hot spot in Westmoreland County. College recruiters have flocked to the area to see other standouts, like Latrobe senior lineman Trent Holler and Jeannette senior wide receiver Marcus Barnes.

Their mailboxes have been clogged throughout the spring and summer with college letters.

The big “backyard” programs are even coming around, with Pitt and West Virginia both extending offers to Thrift and Holler.

Penn State also appears interested in both.

“Whenever colleges coaches talk to me, I tell them about the other guys we have around here,” Thrift said.

Added Rizzo, “There is a lot of talent in this area.”

Fort-Knights

Thrift has offers from 10 Division I programs, including Pitt, West Virginia, Syracuse, Indiana and Ohio.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety and running back is known for his ability to cover a lot of space on defense, and deliver big hits.

Rizzo (6-2, 215) is a speedy outside linebacker and receiver for the Knights and has committed to Youngstown State. His 15 offers were mostly from FCS schools, and he narrowed his choices to Youngstown State, Albany, Elon, Holy Cross and Fordham before committing Aug. 3.

Egos, Rizzo said, do not exist within the program, expectations notwithstanding.

“We are all friends on this team,” he said. “No one is better than anyone else. We need to form that bond as one.”

Thrift has not set a timetable for his decision and said several schools remain in the running.

“We’re looking forward to a big season here,” Thrift said. “We have to get back to doing the small things better.”

Norwin plans to change its offense to better fit its personnel, going to a no-huddle spread.

“For us to be successful, (Thrift and Rizzo) both need to play integral roles on offense and defense,” coach Dave Brozeski said.

And don’t forget Norwin’s upsurging quarterback, junior Jack Salopek. He already has an offer from Pitt.

“You can’t take a play off with Jack at QB,” Rizzo said. “He keeps it moving. He has so much potential.”

Holler back now

The guy they call “Big Snack” at Latrobe is far from full when it comes to football.

In addition to Pitt and West Virginia, Holler (6-3, 290) has pulled in more than a dozen offers and while he has flirted with the idea of narrowing his list of schools down, he said a number of them are still in the running, including Pitt, West Virginia, Connecticut, East Carolina, Youngstown State, Delaware and apparently others.

The website 24/7 Sports lists him as the No. 11 center in the nation in his class, a three-star prospect.

Holler, a center and defensive end, has as much personality as he does football talent.

What fuels him on the field?

“Wanting to get better to dominate the competition I go against,” he said. “It’s a blessing to have God-given ability to be a freak athlete then just pushing myself to the absolute max.”

Holler is one of the most sought-after recruits to come out of Latrobe.

“I don’t think there’s any question, with 17 offers,” Latrobe coach Jason Marucco said. “Guys like Trent have helped to make our program better”

Holler posted a video of himself juking a defender for a catch in practice with the lead-in, “Lineman can shake off corners too...” The brow-raising clip of him morphing into a speed-burst receiver blew up his Twitter account. He picked up more than 250 likes and 15,000-plus views.

Barnes-storming

Marcus Barnes watched last year’s seniors lead by example, and vocally, so he understands what his role entails this season for Jeannette, the defending WPIAL and PIAA Class A champion.

“I want our younger guys to look up to me,” the 6-4 Barnes said.

The smooth-striding wideout with Velcro hands and well-timed jump balls has offers from Army, Navy, Air Force, Morgan State, Holy Cross and Robert Morris.

“The kid might have the best set of hands I’ve seen here,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said.

Barnes said he wants to wait until after the season to make a decision, anticipating larger offers could still find their way to him.

Born in Suffolk, Va., Barnes moved to Greensburg and then Jeannette as an eighth-grader. He wants to continue the Jayhawks’ proud tradition -- his way.

“I’ll always be a Jeannette kid,” he said.

With stars like Robert Kennedy, Tre Cunningham and Anthony Johnson no longer around, he will have to have a greater impact.

“I don’t feel like I did enough last year,” Barnes said. “Everyone says ‘Poogie’ (Kennedy) won us the championship. I want to do more this year.”

No ‘I’ in team

Norwin enjoys the attention but wants it to be for team accomplishments, not just scholarships.

“It’s great to have that (buzz about the program),” Brozeski said. “Guys like Jayvon and Gianni have worked extremely hard to get to where they are. Our focus is on team. That has to be our mindset.”

Norwin has been to the playoffs four straight times but hasn’t made it out of the first round.

“We don’t want to be one and done any more,” Brozeski said. “And we can’t just settle on making the playoffs.”

Said Rizzo: “We need to take the next step.”

Family affair

All four of the aforementioned prospects have football in their bloodlines. All of them have relatives that have played or are playing college football.

Barnes’ father, Johnnie, played four seasons in the NFL, three with the San Diego Chargers and one with the Steelers. The former wide receiver played college ball at Hampton (Va.) and was a ninth-round draft pick of San Diego in 1992.

“He mostly lays back and doesn’t say too much,” Marcus said is his father’s involvement in his recruiting. “But he tries to help me make good decisions.”

Holler’s father, Dick, played at Elon, another school that offered Trent.

Elon’s recruiting coordinator is Mike Shanahan, the former Norwin and Pitt player.

Thrift’s cousin, Brenon Thrift, will be a senior at West Virginia. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive lineman, who played at Penn Hills, transferred from Penn State.

Rizzo’s brother, Dante (6-3, 285), will be a redshirt sophomore offensive lineman at Edinboro.

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