Brandon Wagner looks for extra yardage after a catch against Central Catholic this season.
By Ryan Riordan Tri-State Sports & News Service
Eric Kasperowicz starred for Jack McCurry in the early 1990s, helping North Hills win WPIAL and PIAA titles in 1993 as the team's starting quarterback.
He then coached under McCurry as an assistant for 11 years before coming Pine-Richland's offensive coordinator in 2011.
So when Kasperowicz looks to the other side of Martorelli Stadium prior to the start of Friday's Northern Eight Conference game between Pine Richland (4-3, 3-3) and North Hills (4-3, 3-2) and doesn't see McCurry, it's going to be different.
"It's going to be weird," said Kasperowicz, who took over for Clair Altemus as Rams coach this season. "He's been a staple of that program for decades. But once the game starts, I think everything will go back to normal."
McCurry retired after the 2012 season after coaching North Hills for 35 years. While Kasperowicz won't see his former coach across the field from him, he will see a familiar face. Like Kasperowicz, Pat Carey played and coached under McCurry at North Hills. Carey coached with McCurry for 19 years before taking over the reins of the program this season.
Before being elevated to head coach, Carey was North Hills' defensive coordinator. So he and Kasperowicz also matched wits when the Rams and Indians faced off the past two seasons.
But Kasperowicz doesn't think the familiarity will make much of a difference either way Friday night.
"[Carey's] a good coach and they are going to play good defense," Kasperowicz said. "But ultimately it comes down to which team makes more plays and which team makes fewer mistakes."
Pine-Richland's quarterback, Ben DiNucci, has done a good job of limiting mistakes. A junior, DiNucci was picked off just once in his first 121 passes, completing more than 70 percent. He entered Week 7 as the WPIAL's fifth-leading passer.
He has spread around the wealth. D'ondre Gastion (27 catches for 413 yards), Michael Merhaut (23 for 339) and Anthony Battaglia (15 for 247) are seeing plenty of passes thrown their way.
"[DiNucci] is the most improved kid on the team," Kasperowicz said. "He's a student of the game and really understands what we're doing on offense. He doesn't force things and just takes what the defense gives him. It also helps that he has some pretty good receivers."
The thing that makes the Rams offense so difficult to defend, though, is its balance. Pine-Richland has one of the top running backs in the WPIAL in junior Connor Slomka, who has rushed for 1,046 yards and 18 touchdowns this season.
The Rams balanced offense is second in WPIAL Class AAAA in points per game at 37.9.
But North Hills enters Friday's game seventh in the class in scoring defense, allowing 15.1 points per contest. The Indians allowed 10 points in regulation last Friday night against Seneca Valley, a 24-17 double-overtime loss.
Carey believes the key to slowing down the Rams begins with stopping the run.
"It starts with the back [Slomka]," Carey said. "You have to try and slow him down. He moves the sticks for them. But it's a double-edged sword. You can't key on him too much."
The Indians will enter Friday's game coming off a tough, double-overtime loss to the Raiders. The loss dropped North Hills into a third-place tie in the conference with North Allegheny.
Carey admits the loss was difficult to digest, but he could take a lot of positives out of the game.
One was the continued progress of quarterback Kindhal Taylor, who had a 67-yard touchdown run. The week before, Taylor ran for 121 yards against Fox Chapel. Taylor took over for Jake Bruder at quarterback in Week 4.
"He's very athletic," Carey said. "He can do a lot of things with his athleticism."
Taylor and the Indians will likely find themselves in another tight battle against the Rams. Other than Central Catholic, which has crushed virtually every opponent this season, the Rams have been competitive with other top teams in the conference. The Rams led North Allegheny and Seneca Valley in the second half, only to find themselves on the losing side.
Kasperowicz is hoping his team will finally break through with a top-tier win Friday.
"We're putting up big numbers, but the next step is to win one of these big conference games against the upper tier," Kasperowicz said. "Until we do that, we won't be considered in that group."
• Game: North Hills (4-3, 3-2) vs. Pine-Richland (4-3, 3-3).
• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
• Where: Martorelli Stadium, West View.
• Skinny: Both teams have clinched WPIAL playoff berths, but the winner could wind up with home-field in the first round.