A / BIG SEVEN: Matsook isn't flashy, but Rochester keeps winning

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The WPIAL has had its share of coaching legends. New Castle's Lindy Lauro, Butler's Art Bernardi, Mt. Lebanon's Art Walker, Gateway's Pete Antimarino, Fort Cherry's Jim Garry and Jeannette's Joe Mucci are names that quickly come to mind.

Current head coaches who will join that fraternity include Upper St. Clair's Jim Render, North Hills' Jack McCurry, Ambridge's Don Yannessa and Blackhawk's Joe Hamilton.

Even though he is entering just his seventh season as Rochester's head coach, Gene Matsook should be considered for legendary status.

All he has done in the previous six years is win four WPIAL Class A titles, two PIAA championships and finish as the PIAA runner-up two other times. His record is 71-15.

Last year, with a team of predominantly underclassmen, Rochester went 12-1, losing to Duquesne in the WPIAL final at Heinz Field. That's five trips to the WPIAL title game in six seasons.

"I was speaking at a banquet and Jim Render and some other coaches were there," said Matsook during a break in training camp practices. "I got up and said we were 12-1 last season and a little bit down. Render says, 'He went 12-1 and is a little disappointed. I wish I could go 12-1 every year.'

"I thought, 'Yeah, he's right.' But we set our goals so high that you overlook the little things."

Rochester is favored to win the Big Seven Conference title again this season and challenge for WPIAL and PIAA titles. It seems as if the Rams are a cut above others in the conference.

And with what his teams have accomplished in six seasons, Matsook's place as one of the WPIAL's top coaches is secured.

After 21 years of coaching -- he was an assistant at Rochester for 14 seasons before replacing his brother, Dan, as head coach -- he could walk away tomorrow with no regrets. But his competitive nature is as strong as ever.

Perhaps the most impressive part of what Matsook has accomplished is he has done it at a Class A school. He has 40 players on this year's roster but had just 35 in uniform for a midweek practice session the first week of camp.

It's easier to sustain a winning record at a larger school with a bigger talent pool. At a Class A school, such as Rochester, a small junior class or a sophomore class that doesn't have a lot of athletes, can cause a dramatic drop in victories.

OK, so what's Matsook's secret?

He said there is no magic formula. The Rams have been fortunate to have talented players such as senior wide receiver/running back/defensive back Derek Moye, a Division I college prospect. But Matsook is quick to point out talent only takes a team so far.

"We try to make the kids fundamentally sound," he said. "More importantly, the players understand [what goes into being a winner]. They are willing to pay the price. We run a lot, and lot of these players had older brothers who played."

"Coach is always telling us that we're playing for those who were here before us," senior quarterback Dan Camp said. "It's all about the team and not one player. That's why we don't have our names on our backs like some other schools."

Rochester's success under Matsook is also a lesson in old-school values.

The Rams are not flashy. They still use a full-house backfield set -- three running backs behind the quarterback -- on certain plays while the trend is to one- and two-back formations.

And the Rochester uniforms are as basic as white paint on a picket fence.

"Last year, the blue jerseys had a white collar. That was a big thing," Camp said, laughing. "The uniforms the players wear on the [youth] teams are a little more in fashion, but not us."

"I'm an admirer of Joe Paterno," Matsook said, referring to Penn State's no-frills uniforms. "You're here to play football, not look fancy.

"We're blue-collar people. Our uniforms are what blue-collar people wear."

They are also what winners wear.

BIG SEVEN DATA

TEAM TO BEAT
Rochester With seven offensive and six defensive starters returning along with 18 seniors, the Rams are favored to return to the WPIAL Class A final. Coach Gene Matsook has one of the WPIAL's top players in versatile Derek Moye, who rushed for 1,128 yards on 138 carries last year and caught 24 passes for 535 yards. There is also quarterback Dan Camp, who passed for 943 yards and 15 TDs, and

running back Reon Hunter, who gained 559 yards.

CONTENDERS
South Side Beaver The Rams could be hard pressed to match last year's 8-3 record with just six starters returning. But one of those is running back Sal Ruggeri, who rushed for 949 yards on 117 carries and scored 10 touchdowns.

Avonworth The Antelopes look to improve on last season's 4-6 record and a first-round playoff loss to Springdale. Coach Jason Kekseo welcomed back nine offensive and five defensive starters for his second season. The offensive catalyst is quarterback Josh Graham, who passed for 864 yards.

Monaca It has been three seasons since the Indians have qualified for the WPIAL playoffs. Coach Shawn McCreary has 15 starters -- eight on offense, seven on defense -- returning from a 3-6 team. Senior quarterback Brett Mazine will trigger the offense.

THE OTHERS
Bishop Canevin The Crusaders move into the Big 7 after competing in the Black Hills Conference. Veteran coach Bob Jacoby needs four wins to reach the 200-victory plateau and has leading rusher Matt Walter, who gained 1,473 yards on 243 carries, returning.

North Catholic Bob Ravenstahl takes over as the Trojans' coach and has seven offensive and six defensive starters returning from a 1-9 team. Quarterback Aaron Smetanka (6-5, 200) passed for 1,741 yards and 15 TDs last season.

FIVE TO WATCH
Josh Graham, Sr., Avonworth, QB, 6-1, 180; Derek Moye, Sr., Rochester, WR/RB/DB, 6-5, 190; Sal Ruggeri, South Side Beaver, RB/LB, 6-0, 175; Aaron Smetanka, North Catholic, Sr., QB/DB, 6-5, 200; Matt Walter, Sr., Bishop Canevin, RB, 6-1, 175;

GAME OF THE YEAR
Rochester at Monaca, Oct. 27.


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