Qualifying for the WPIAL playoffs is usually not something to celebrate at Monessen. Most years, it’s a given.
Monessen boasts one of Western Pennsylvania’s more tradition-rich programs. A long list of former professional players such as Julius Dawkins, Jamie Reader and the late Jo Jo Heath helped the Greyhounds compile 657 victories.
So sneaking into the Class A bracket last year as the fourth-place team from the Tri-County South might not have been worth bragging about, but it was a much-needed step for a program that endured an unexpected rough patch.
It was Monessen’s first playoff appearance since 2013, and the Greyhounds’ 3-8 record and first-round loss to eventual state champion Jeannette was an improvement from a 1-9 record -- the worst in team history -- in ’16.
The Greyhounds hope to take a few more strides this season, and early indicators are promising.
“We’ve got more participation. We’ve got our numbers up,” second-year coach Mike Blainefield said. “The problem you have with limited numbers is unlimited. We have 31 signed up right now. Last year, we were in the low 20s going into camp. We didn’t have enough to practice 11 on 11. By the end of the season, we had 14 (players).”
Blainefield knows the history of Monessen football, and his mission is to restore pride in the program.
The former Georgetown player is a Monessen grad. He was an assistant coach for six seasons before taking over the program.
“You could kind of see the decline coming,” he said. “When I first moved back, I went to a game, and I knew I wanted to help. You could see the participation was down. The attitude had started to change. It was a combination of bad timing and poor support. It’s heartbreaking what happened. It really is, not just the performance on the field but the crowd. There were a lot of empty seats.”
Blainefield said momentum is building, and it starts with senior middle linebacker/running back Vaughn Taylor, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 last season.
“He’s back, and he’s healthy,” Blainefield said. “He’s going to help us be more balanced on offense.”
Quarterback Dwayne Howe became the starter midway through last season, and he threw 11 touchdowns against four interceptions.
“He’s very, very intelligent in the field,” Blainefield said. “He knows when to get rid of the ball and what to look for against the defense. He has the confidence of his teammates.”
Running back Elijah Davis rushed for 748 yards and five touchdowns last season, and he’ll complement Taylor in the backfield.
Blainefield is confident his offense will average more than 14.3 points it did in 2017. He also is convinced the defense will perform better. He singled out his defensive line, led by junior Jalen Brice, who earned all-conference honors as a sophomore.
A stout defensive line is paramount in the Tri-County South, which features a steady diet of run-happy teams such as Fort Cherry, Carmichaels, Mapletown and defending conference champion California.
“The Tri-County South is tough sledding,” Blainefield said. “The teams are not only running teams, pretty much everybody has a grass field, and we’re talking high grass. You’ve got to be strong against the run to compete in this conference.”
Coach: Mike Blainefield
2017 record: 3-8, 2-5
All-time record: 657-366-47
Date, Opponent, Time
8.24, Charleroi, 7 p.m.
8.31, at California*, 7 p.m.
9.7, Springdale, 7 p.m.
9.14, Jefferson-Morgan*, 7 p.m.
9.21, at West Greene*, 7 p.m.
9.28, Bentworth*, 7 p.m.
10.5, Chartiers-Houston*, 7 p.m.
10.12, at Mapletown*, 7 p.m.
10.19, Rochester, 7 p.m.
10.26, at Avella*, 7 p.m.
*Class A Tri-County South Conference game
Passing: Dwayne Howe
698 yards, 11 TDs
Rushing: Elijah Davis
748 yards, 5 TDs
Receiving: Isaiah Beltram
424 yards, 2 TDs