Plenty of changes impacted the North Catholic High School football team in the 2012 season.
The Trojans' schedule featured several new opponents. Coach Bob Ravenstahl and his staff installed a new offense.
And after a one-year hiatus from the WPIAL Class A football playoffs, the Trojans advanced to the semifinals with first- and second-round victories against Bishop Canevin (21-0) and Rochester (22-15) before falling to Sto-Rox, 34-20, last Friday night at Dormont Stadium.
The Vikings, due to meet Clairton at 11 a.m. Friday in the WPIAL Class A championship game at Heinz Field, had a 27-20 lead before multi-talented quarterback Lenny Williams put the game out of reach with a 2 -yard touchdown run with 5:11 left in the game.
"It was a very successful season," said Ravenstahl. "The players and the coaches have to be commended for their efforts. We were underdogs in our first two playoff games, and we won both of them. And we took Sto-Rox into the fourth quarter, and that speaks for itself."
North Catholic's playoff sojourn began with an Eastern Conference banner after the Trojans won the league title with a 7-1 record. North Catholic was the only conference team to advance beyond the playoffs' first round.
The loss to Sto-Rox concluded the Trojans' season with a 9-3 record. That has just whetted the appetite for Ravenstahl and a very young North Catholic team that will return all but two starters on offense and 10 starters on defense -- six of them sophomores. Many of them are two-way starters. And all of this took place after Ravenstahl revamped the Trojans offense.
"We'd been a pass-oriented offense [in prior years], but we moved into a spread set with a lot of shotgun and some wildcat," he said. "Our offensive line adjusted, and their play later in the season was the best I'd seen all year."
The tweaks showcased the talents of P.J. Fulmore, a 5-foot-6, 170-pound sophomore, who finished the season with 1,850 yards on 290 rushes, an average of just less than 6.4 yards per carry.
Although Ravenstahl is pleased with Fulmore's breakout play, he's quick to point out that there were many components to a season that allowed the running back to finish the year approaching the 2,000-yard rushing mark and score 24 touchdowns.
"The whole team had a role in our success; it wasn't just one or two players," said Ravenstahl, who has coached the team since 2006.
Opponents knew Fulmore was carrying the ball most of the time. But North Catholic brought an unpredictable streak to its gameplan against Sto-Rox.
After losing the coin toss, place-kicker Sam Newcamp attempted an onside kick on the opening kickoff. Sto-Rox was not expecting the strategy, and the football was still bouncing free more than 10 yards down the field. But the ball skipped out of bounds before the Trojans could fall on it.
"I told the kids we were coming here to win the game," Ravenstahl said. "[Newcamp] did a great job; he couldn't have kicked it better. We just couldn't recover it."
With the season fresh in his memory, the coach knows that North Catholic won't sneak up on anyone in 2013.
"I don't know if I was surprised with what we did, and I'm not going to say we overachieved," he said. "But we did achieve one of our goals, and we know we're going to be the target of a lot of teams next year. [Opponents] know we are around, and we won't be an underdog."
Against 12 opponents, North Catholic averaged 23.7 points and yielded just 13.6 points a game. The statistics were even better against Eastern Conference foes. The Trojans averaged 26.75 points a game and surrendered just nine points a game.
Experience figured more as the season progressed, the coach believes, particularly in several games.
"Until you're in a close game, you don't know what it's like to experience that," Ravenstahl said. "Going through [a close game] gives you some character and the belief that you've been there before."
There was much to be learned, too, from the 42-7 loss the Trojans suffered in a non-conference game against fellow Class A semifinalist Neshannock.
"That loss helped us to come together as a team," Ravenstahl recalled. "We used it as a learning tool, and we didn't point fingers. That loss helped us in our stretch run."
Ravenstahl said the returning Trojans wanted to begin work right away on the 2013 season, but he urged them to take a step back. When the time comes to prepare for next season, they'll see many familiar faces among their opponents. And their last foe -- Sto-Rox -- will be a regular-season challenge.
"We're playing them at [Lt. J.C. Stone Field]," he said. "We'll face some great challenges as our league will be strong again. But our goals will be the same as they were this year, and that's to get to Heinz Field. We just came up one step short this year."