South Xtra: New coach ready to right ship

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Pete Wagner is well aware of the passion the Baldwin-Whitehall community has for its high school football.

The Fighting Highlanders' football program, however, has struggled to field a winning team for a decade and has not qualified for the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs since 2009.

"We have a big community that is rabid for a winner," Wagner said. "We play in one of the toughest and most challenging conferences in the area.

"We want to right the ship and we're setting our sights on winning a conference championship."

Hired as the Highlanders' new head football coach in February, Wagner, 30, inherits a program that last competed in the WPIAL's postseason in 2009 and made a first-round exit after losing to Woodland Hills, 42-7.

"We have a great bunch of kids who are working tremendously hard to win," Wagner said. "We're focusing on righting the ship moving in the right direction.

"This group of kids wants to win. They also are motivated and enthusiastic."

A former player and 2000 graduate of Seton-LaSalle, Wagner spent the past four years as an assistant coach at Baldwin and was an assistant head coach and offensive coordinator the past two seasons.

"[Being a head coach] is a new role with a new hat," said Wagner, who teaches business and computer information technology at the high school. "The values and ideas are still the same, but my voice is heard a lot more."

After graduating from Seton-LaSalle, Wagner played football at Valley Forge Military College in Wayne, Pa., before transferring and playing the rest of his college career on the offensive line at Morehead State University in Kentucky.

Wagner began his coaching career at Morehead State for one season before serving as an assistant under his former high school coach, Lou Cerro, at Montour from 2005-08.

"I've always said small things make for big things on the field," Wagner said. "We're going to focus on the little things that make football what it is. From a coaching standpoint, we're going to focus on the talents in our district. We know it's important to run the ball and stop the run.

"That's something we're going to try to be great at."

Wagner replaces Jim Wehner, who resigned at the end of last season after coaching the Highlanders to a 12-25 record in four years. Last season, Baldwin went 2-6 in the Southeastern Conference and finished the year with a 3-6 overall record.

"It's a very, very tough conference with a great group of coaches," Wagner said. "I am humbled to be in the same ranks.

"Our expectations are very high. The kids understand what's expected through what we talk about on a daily basis. We play the game to win and any time you're in a race you're in it to win. We're driving that concept home each and every day."

Junior quarterback Doug Altavilla as well as senior running backs Stephon Harris and Nicholas Barca are expected to be a few key offensive players returning this season. Altavilla threw for more than 800 yards as a sophomore, while Harris and Barca each carried the ball behind senior starter Dorian Brown last year.

"I am very pleased with our group of seniors," Wagner said. "They bring a lot to the table with the intangibles to be successful. We're going to be looking for some of them to take a leadership role and take the bull by the horns."

The Highlanders haven't wasted any time preparing for the upcoming season, either. Besides daily conditioning workouts, Baldwin also participated in Pitt's 7-on-7 passing camp in June.

"We've been on the field quite a bit," Wagner said. "We're in the weight room four days a week, too. This has been a heavy offseason."

Wagner also plans to keep stressing crucial fundamentals.

"Everything comes down to blocking and tackling," Wagner said. "If we do both facets of the game we can be successful. We have to play smart and be able to take advantage of all opportunities.

"We're going to need to protect the football, produce some big runs and stop the run. We have to start the game strong. If we do that we'll be able to experience success."

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