Grove City, Allegheny pulling their programs from depths
Forgive Wabash coach Don Morel if he looks at Allegheny’s Alex Victor with a bit of envy.
Victor caught three passes for 157 yards and a touchdown against the Little Giants last season. That showing was part of a season in which the Florida native had a school-record 15 touchdown receptions and amassed more than 1,000 receiving yards en route to All-North Coast Athletic Conference first-team honors.
“I think other coaches now think, ‘I wish I had that guy on my team,’ ” Morel said. “Three years ago, no one said that about Allegheny.”
Few coaches thought that way about Grove City three years ago, either. The Wolverines were mired in what turned into a 33-game losing streak.
But last season, just the second for coach Andrew DiDonato, GCC went 4-4 in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
“He’s found a scheme and a personality that fits that school,” Westminster coach Scott Benzel said. “It’s no surprise to me that they’re doing well. I saw that train coming a mile away as soon as I met Coach DiDonato.”
Grove City and Allegheny spent the early part of this decade as whipping boys in their respective conferences. In 2016, both hired new coaches: DiDonato, a record-setting quarterback for the Wolverines, ascended to the helm at his alma mater, and B.J. Hammer, who served with Morel on Wabash’s staff, took over at Allegheny.
Last season, both made significant strides: Allegheny went 3-7 and Grove City 4-6. Those numbers might not sound overly impressive, but consider:
• In the five seasons before DiDonato’s arrival, GCC went 14-36, including 5-25 from 2013-15.
• In the same five seasons, before Hammer’s hiring, the Gators were worse, 11-39, including 1-29 from 2013-15.
Not much changed in both coaches’ first season. Grove City was 0-10 and was outscored 445-193 by its opponents. Allegheny went 1-9 and was outscored 426-172.
But the light bulb started to glow last season. After an 0-3 start, Grove City won four of its final seven. Allegheny’s three wins came against teams they lost to by an average of 23 points the season before, and even in the losses, they closed the margins significantly.
Morel saw that firsthand. Wabash trampled Allegheny, 59-7, in 2016 but barely escaped with a 48-41 win last season.
That game was an epiphany for Gators defensive lineman Marcus Davenport.
“I just looked around on the sideline, and it was just a different vibe than it was (my) freshman year,” said Davenport, a senior and Valley grad. “That’s when I knew the culture around here was starting to change. It felt good to look around and see a team that wanted to go out and win.”
Hammer said when he arrived in Meadville, the task he saw wasn’t necessarily overwhelming -- “Although my wife would probably say, ‘Absolutely,’ ” he said. -- but it was “scary.” The Gators, he said, were a weak football team, so the first order of business was to get the players on a weight-training program.
Along with that, a change in mentality was needed. Football, he said, had to matter to the players.
“Every football team has a big chunk of the head coach’s personality,” Morel said. “That’s who Coach Hammer is. He’s not a mess-around guy.”
Fortunately for Hammer, he inherited a group of players who were ready to quit messing around.
“Not that they didn’t care about it before, but now it really, truly means something,” he said. “It’s not just a small pocket of guys. And that’s huge.”
DiDonato also wanted to change his team’s training habits and attitude. The latter he accomplished via a more philosophical approach.
He adopted the motto “Brick by brick” to illustrate how he wanted to build the program. He has 18 “brick” phrases, 4-second sound bites that, he said, stick with the players. Each of those phrases has a corresponding story, and DiDonato has derived some of his greatest satisfaction from seeing the older players run with them.
“I’ll look at Randall (LaBrie) our quarterback and say, ‘David and Goliath. Tell everybody how that relates to our first statement of focusing on your vision and not your circumstance.’ And he stands up with all the passion telling that story.
“So instead of me doing a lot of the talking, now it’s telling our seniors or our captains, ‘You tell the young guys what it’s going to take for this program to continue to grow.’ And it just gives me chills.”
Said senior safety Ethan Conto, “The coaches can only go so far. They’re contained to the sidelines. After that, it’s got to be within yourself. To get better, there’s got to be a driving force to do that, and we (seniors) want to be that force to push this team as far as it can go.”
Weightlifting and storytelling are nice, but games are won between the lines. Outcomes hinge on performance.
Both teams showed flashes last season, particularly on offense. Wesley Schools rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the Wolverines, their first back to do so in six seasons. Receiver Cody Gustafson caught a team-high 58 passes for 815 yards and five touchdowns.
Montour grad LaBrie also put together a solid season -- 1,586 yards, 11 TDs, 56.4 percent completions -- despite being thrown into the mix unexpectedly. He was Brett Laffoon’s backup until Laffoon walked away after Week 1 because of repeated issues with concussions.
“We went through a phase in the offense where we didn’t really know who we were,” LaBrie said. “Then, once we figured out who we were and what we wanted to do, we were really able to just make our way and continue to build.”
Allegheny also benefitted from a high-powered skill group, led by Victor, quarterback Logan Lee and running back Tyler Balla (Greensburg Central Catholic). Lee threw for program records of 3,002 yards and 33 TDs, and Balla rushed for 955 yards, the most by an Allegheny back in more than a decade, and 10 touchdowns.
The Gators averaged 34 points but gave up an average of 43.1. Therein lies the challenge for Allegheny and GCC (33.2 points against): keep the other team off the scoreboard.
DiDonato said he could see his defense improve as last season progressed. Defensive coordinator Trent Laune was in his first season, and it took time for the Wolverines to jell.
“At the beginning of the year, we ran a little bit different defense than we run now,” Conto said. “I feel like the coaches really looked at our personnel and really wanted to fit our defense to our personnel. Once we did that, I feel like we got the right guys going, and it really fit and really took off.”
For Allegheny’s defense, the challenge was getting off the field on third down. Victor, however, said he can see the defense coming around by the results in practice.
“Believe it or not, they’ve been kicking our (butt),” Victor said. “You know what they say: iron sharpens iron. And our offense, we haven’t lost a single person. Us giving it to (the defense) 100 percent every day, they’re replying. I can see improvement in them every single day.”
Players and coaches on both sides acknowledged their teams still have a long way to go, but, at the same time, they aren’t shy about thinking big. Victor said Allegheny wants to win eight games -- “There were about five games (last year) we lost by 16 points or less.” DiDonato said the final “brick” for Grove City will be to compete for a PAC title.
Those aspirations might have seemed absurd just two seasons ago. That each side can express them with confidence speaks volumes about their transformation.
“If we can get better at each of the areas we have discussed, nothing will be impossible for us,” DiDonato said. “Now it’s just working every day to see how long.
“Is it going to take one year? Is it going to take three more years? It’s their decision, and it’s our decision as a staff how we work.”
Said Davenport: “We see things getting better. But we can never just sit here and just settle. The moment we settle, that’s when teams are going to come back and do the things they were doing to us (my) freshman year.
“We have to see the difference, accept it and keep moving forward.”