Lake Fong, Post-GazetteCalifornia High School running back Donte Valentino is leading a resurgence for the Trojans in the Class A Tri-County South Conference.
Does he really have a choice?
At 5 feet 7, 160-pounds, California junior running back Donte Valentino needs to play with a mean streak. Players that slight have to be that way or run the risk of getting bashed around.
Last year, as he gained 1,165 yards and scored 17 touchdowns, Valentino was not too fond of absorbing the hits. So, he opted for delivering them.
"I've never seen anyone as small as him play as big as he does," California coach Joe Kuhns said. "Watching him, especially at first, it took me aback a little bit. Where before it might have opened my eyes when he ran through someone or when he decided to take on a tackler, now it is just sort of an everyday thing.
"He's shown that he's not intimidated and he's going to try to run through you."
Valentino spent time toward the end of last year -- a season in which the Trojans went 7-3 -- at quarterback. This season, he's projected to return to tailback.
With Valentino as the catalyst and Kuhns serving as architect, California is experiencing a resurgence of sorts.
As Kuhns enters his fifth season, he is able to look back at his time with the Trojans and boast of an impressive credential -- California has reached the WPIAL Class A playoffs every year. The Trojans have won seven games in each of the past two seasons.
Part of what has driven California, and Kuhns in particular, is a top-heavy landscape where a few teams have dominated the conference.
In three of the past four seasons, Monessen and Carmichaels finished one-two in the Tri-County South.
"We sort of got tired of hearing about Monessen and Carmichaels all the time," Kuhns said. "Now, to be clear, those programs earned the right to be the ones everyone has been talking about; they have been the two teams that have been at the top.
"Now, though, it isn't as much as they have gone backward, but we feel like we've elevated our program to the point where we deserve to be talked about with those programs."
There is truth in that, but in order for the Trojans to join the area's perennial powers, they must have another breakthrough. This one has to be in the postseason.
Since 1996, California is 1-9 in the WPIAL playoffs, winning a lone first-round game last year against Western Beaver.
"I have been saying the same thing since I first took the job here," Kuhns said. "Each year, we want to go one more step than we did the year before.
"Our first goal is to make the playoffs and that is a great goal, but we want to move past doing just that. You find out a lot about a team in the playoffs and it is time for us to be a program that expects to win playoff games."
TEAM TO BEAT
California This might be the year the Trojans make a lot of noise and if they do it will be as a result of the ground game. Junior Donte Valentino (RB, 5-7, 160) is arguably the conference's finest back with senior Waugh Carter (RB, 5-11, 205) also a force.
Carmichaels The Mikes were young last season and still reached the playoffs. This year, they could make a run at the conference crown and a big reason is Logan Phillips (RB/WR/S, 6-1, 215) who ran for 623 yards as a junior and scored eight touchdowns.
Jefferson-Morgan The Rockets were a young playoff team last year. This season, they will be more seasoned, particularly with junior Justin Falcon (RB, 5-10, 150) and senior Jarrod Moskola (RB/WR, 6-1, 180).
Monessen Senior Joe Heath (QB, 6-0, 180) provides the skill, with seniors James Billick (OL, 6-0, 260) and Nick Mull (OL, 6-4, 300) clearing space.
Mapletown Coach George Messich was a quality lineman at Pitt in the 1970s and has crafted a trio of solid senior two-way linemen with Randy Pritchard (6-0, 220), Wes Loring (5-9, 250) and Frank Jeffries (6-2, 265).
West Greene Leading receiver Marcus Simms (6-1, 180) returns after pulling in 22 passes and scoring four touchdowns.
Geibel The Gators went 1-8 last year, dropping the last three games. They have the potential to improve.
FIVE TO WATCH
Waugh Carter, Sr., California, RB/LB, 5-11, 205; Joe Heath, Sr., Monessen, QB, 6-0, 180; Jarrod Moskola, Sr., Jefferson-Morgan, RB/WR/CB, 6-1, 180; Logan Phillips, Sr., Carmichaels, RB/WR/FS, 6-1, 215; Donte Valentino, Jr., California, RB/DB, 5-7, 160.
GAME OF THE YEAR
California at Carmichaels, Oct. 27.
Colin Dunlap can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1459.