Bob Ravenstahl has seen a lot of quality football players both when he played at North Catholic High in the early 1970s and since he's been affiliated with the Trojans' football program as a coach.
In all that time, the two running backs who have made the greatest impact as sophomores were Julian Durden, who spent two years at North Catholic before transferring to Montour, and P.J. Fulmore, who already has lit up opposing backfields for 902 yards and 12 touchdowns in five games this season. Durden ran for 952 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a 10th-grader at North Catholic.
"They are somewhat similar, but there are some differences, too," said Ravenstahl, who leads his Trojans into a WPIAL Class A Eastern Conference game against Avonworth at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Lt. J.C. Stone Field in North Park. "Both are outstanding athletes."
The winner of this game will take a leg up in challenging Northgate for first place in the conference. The Flames are the only team with an unbeaten conference record of 4-0. North Catholic is next at 4-1, while Apollo-Ridge, Avonworh and Springdale are all tied for third place with 3-1 records.
The top four teams in the conference will qualify for the WPIAL Class A playoffs. Last season, North Catholic missed the playoffs for the first time since Ravenstahl became the team's coach in 2006.
"I think the conference is more balanced than it has been in the past," Ravenstahl said. "Apollo-Ridge beat Avonworth [28-21 in overtime last Friday], and I thought Apollo-Ridge was one of the better teams we faced. But Avonworth is a tough team, and so is Springdale. Northgate is playing well, but someone is going to end up fifth and out of the playoffs."
Three of the four touchdowns Fulmore scored in a 52-7 victory against West Shamokin last Friday night came from inside the 10-yard line and the other was from 24 yards away. Ravenstahl said his 5-foot-6, 170-pound sophomore from the South Side is a threat any time he touches the ball.
"P.J. has exceeded our expectations," Ravenstahl said. "He's a tireless worker who worked very hard in the offseason. He has a bright future."
Right now, the game is no mystery for Fulmore.
"He can score from any distance," the coach said. "He can be shifty, but he is not afraid to run over people and we want him to do that when he gets inside the 10-yard line. We want him moving straight ahead rather than using some shifts and spins.
"There have been times when he's fumbled, so we want his momentum to be going forward and his pads low when he's close to the goal line. He knows that is what he has to do, and he has a lot of determination."
While Ravenstahl is effusive in his praise of Fulmore, this young standout is quietly confident while heaping plenty of praise on his offensive line and fullback Jarred Fragpane, a 6-3, 215-pound junior who has opened some holes big enough for Fulmore to sprint through.
"If the guys don't get the job done, I can't get any yardage," he said. "I credit the line and my fullback for every [positive] play."
Four of the five starters on the line -- junior guard Josh Churchin (5-10, 200), junior tackle Ryan Long (6-2, 225), senior guard Nick Ramsden (5-8, 205) and junior tight end Ronnie Meder (6-1, 195) are two-year starters. First-year junior center Dylan Greco (5-8, 217) has stepped in well.
Two others -- senior Josh Szramowski (5-8, 190) and sophomore Joe Sadler (6-0, 230) -- have rotated into the lineup on a regular basis.
"A lot of our success has to do with the experience they gained last year, and they've been a big factor in P.J.'s success this season," Ravenstahl said.
While acknowledging that his focus is on Avonworth this week, Fulmore knows he'll face an emotional challenge just eight days after the Trojans play the Antelopes as North Catholic travels to Wilkinsburg to play a Tigers team coached by his father, Mike Fulmore.
"I'm thinking only about Avonworth, but there will be a lot of hype for the Wilkinsburg game," he said. "I know [my dad] and the coaching staff [at Wilkinsburg] and mostly everybody on his team. We talked a lot before the game last year. There was a lot of joking, especially after we won the game."
First Published October 4, 2012 4:00 AM