Mere words can’t describe the satisfaction of a big hit, at least not in Conor Selinger’s eyes. It’s more about the feeling.
Take an Allegheny Conference game last season against Keystone Oaks, for example, when Selinger dragged down the opposing quarterback as he tried to escape to the sidelines, sending the home Freeport crowd into a frenzy.
“It’s like a feeling of euphoria,” Selinger said. “There’s nothing to describe it. It’s just pure happiness.”
Perhaps only one type of play can match it for linebackers like Selinger: the feeling of running over an opposing linebacker on the other side of the ball.
“If I run a kid over one time, they’re going to be scared the next time,” Valley’s Deonte Ross said. “I like hitting a lot.”
The Alle-Kiski Valley finds itself chalk full of heavy hitters this season, players who can pack a punch as both a lead back on offense and a punishing linebacker on defense. As high school teams begin to follow the lead of colleges and NFL teams with spread offenses, bruisers like Ross or Selinger, Kiski Area’s Drew Dinunzio-Biss or Apollo-Ridge’s Logan Harmon are showing that plenty of room remains for them.
“I like the hard-nosed style of play,” Dinunzio-Biss said, “more old-school.”
Added Harmon: “I don’t like to be cocky about stuff, but I like hitting people and making big plays and stuff. I just go all out.”
Kiski Area coach Sam Albert dishes out nicknames to all his players, and the show “Friday Night Lights” inspired his pick for Dinunzio-Biss: “Smash.”
The name references the Dillon Panthers’ star running back, but it also meshes perfectly with Dinunzio-Biss’ personality.
“I like to play physical, and I think it fits well for me on both sides of the ball,” said the 6-foot, 220-pound RB/LB.
Although he played as a freshman and sophomore, Dinunzio-Biss broke out as a junior by making a team-high 111 tackles. His 181 career stops broke the school record previously held by Scott McKillop.
“It’s a huge honor to beat his record because he’s one of the great all-time Kiski players, and he’s a really well-known player from this area,” said Dinunzio-Biss, who previously met McKillop at football camps and picked up some tips from the former Cavaliers and Pitt star. “It meant a lot to me, and it’s something I take great pride in.”
Dinunzio-Biss said he believes his quick reaction time helps him immensely as a linebacker, and he also can use his hands and feet to shed blockers and reach the ball carrier. He also prides his role as the defensive quarterback, important for communication.
Offensively, the senior figures to shoulder a heavier load this season after rushing for 370 yards and averaging 8.2 yards per carry as the Cavaliers’ No. 2 ground option last season. He’ll complement an aerial attack led by quarterback Ryne Wallace and wide receiver Jack Colecchi.
But the fan of Jack Lambert and Ryan Shazier knows it’s his ability on the defensive side of the ball that can help Kiski Area improve from its 1-9 record during Albert’s debut season.
“You know how the saying goes: Defense wins championships,” he said. “I think the defense sets the tone for the game and really puts the team on the back when it needs to be.”
An avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, hunting and riding dirt bikes, Harmon tends to come to practices a bit banged-up.
“He’ll come in and have scrapes all over him,” Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba said of the sophomore. “He’ll be all covered, and his mom will just look at him, shake her head and throw her hands up. She has boys, and she has to deal with those three knuckleheads. They’re always non-stop moving.”
Harmon says those types of injuries tend to be unavoidable, but he’s hoping to stay healthier on the football field this fall after a pair of injuries slowed him late in his freshman campaign.
A starter from A-R’s first game, Harmon rushed for a team-high 618 yards and 10 touchdowns and added a team-high 68 tackles on defense. But a knee injury cost him one game and part of another, and a concussion suffered in the Vikings’ finale ended his season. The injuries ultimately helped short-circuit Apollo-Ridge’s playoff hopes after a strong start.
“I need to work on my vision running the ball, because last year on my concussion I went into a guy and got banged up pretty bad,” Harmon said. “But I got tackled another time, and that wasn’t really my fault. My knee just gave out. I sprained my (lateral collateral ligament).”
Skiba said Harmon comes into the season bigger and stronger. The 5-foot-8, 195-pound sophomore, also a talented wrestler, plays with surprising power given his size.
“I would just run downhill, I’d make a big hit and I would just keep going somehow,” Harmon said. “I just stay on my feet. I’m a wrestler, and a lot of that comes from wrestling, being able to stay on my feet. Wrestling helps me out so much in football, with all the takedowns and tackling.”
Harmon said he looked up to recent A-R stars Duane Brown and Tre Tipton when he was younger. The Vikings hope he can follow in their footsteps of success.
Muzzy Colosimo liked to lean on the power running game in his coaching tenure at Greensburg Central Catholic, with big backs like David Miller and Max Suter setting the tone.
He has the perfect fit at Valley in Ross, a 6-1, 222-pounder who runs like he’s still playing his former position of fullback, benches 225 pounds and squats 425.
“When you put a 220-pound tailback in the hole, if he gets to the secondary, he’s running over people,” Colosimo said. “I’ve always liked that kind of back.”
A former all-conference fullback, Ross took over lead ballcarrier duties for the first time in 2017 and racked up four 100-yard rushing performances and six touchdowns in eight games.
“I’d say I took advantage of every play I got the ball, trying to make the best of it, try to get as many yards as I can or try to score,” said Ross, adding he believes he gets better later in the game. “I feel like once I get into the game, I get more intensity and get excited. Once that happens, it’s a different game.”
Ross also played defense full-time for the first time as a junior, leading Valley in tackles at middle linebacker. This fall he’ll switch to either outside linebacker or defensive end, where he would form a potentially dominant defensive duo with fellow senior Noah Hutcherson.
Valley, searching for its first WPIAL playoff berth since 2013, will look to Ross for leadership. After Colosimo said he struggled to control Ross’ temperament in the past, that’s no longer an issue for the senior, who looks up to Ray Lewis’ leadership.
“The way he talked to his team, he was the main factor for them to come together as a team and just did a job,” Ross said.
Selinger played for Freeport as a freshman, when former Yellowjackets linebacker/defensive end Logan Thimons was setting tackle records on his way to a WVU scholarship. And after moving to middle linebacker as a sophomore and shining there as a junior, he hopes to live up to Thimons’ model.
“I’ve been trying to play like him, going full speed after the ball, giving everything on the field,” Selinger said. “I tried to take after his intensity. He was just a dominant force on the field, and that’s what I want to become.”
An all-conference middle linebacker as a junior, Selinger teamed with senior Austin Kemp, the Allegheny Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year, to help Freeport reach the WPIAL Class 3A playoffs. He finished with 84 tackles, second on the team behind Kemp, and also returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns.
There’s a partnership with another Austin on offense, as Selinger and quarterback Austin Romanchak will be the Yellowjackets’ backfield duo for a third consecutive season.
Selinger provides the thunder to Romanchak’s lightning running style; he rushed for 653 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
“We have two threats in the backfield,” Selinger said. “We keep the defense at bay, and we make them think a little bit before they do anything against us. Last year, we were a second-half team, and then whenever we got to the second half and we saw the other team start to tire, we knew that it was time for us, and we had them beat.”
After playing between 170 and 175 pounds last season, Selinger hit the weight room hard in the offseason and is up to about 190. He believes that will only help him on both sides of the ball.
“I like the two positions I’m at now because I get to be in the middle of all the chaos up front,” he said.