In his seven seasons as coach of the South Fayette High School football team, Joe Rossi has turned the program from good to great.
Rossi has amassed a 69-16 record and won two WPIAL championships, which is the same number of WPIAL titles the school had prior to Rossi taking over the job.
On Sunday, Rossi and the South Fayette program reached new heights, bringing home the school's first PIAA football title with a 41-0 victory against Imhotep Charter of Philadelphia. It was the largest margin of victory in a Class AA final.
"It's a special group of kids," Rossi said. "It's great to represent Western Pennsylvania and District 7. It's the toughest district in the state and prepares you for what you're going to face at states."
The Lions racked up a 13-0 record against WPIAL opponents this season. The first big test came at home against Seton-LaSalle, South Fayette's Century Confernce rival, on Sept. 27. But the Lions passed with flying colors, routing the Rebels, 45-3.
"They're our rival that we always look forward to playing," Rossi said. "To play them so well at our place, that was when we knew we may have something special."
South Fayette ended up winning all of its regular season games by at least 27 points, and entered the WPIAL playoffs as the No. 2 seed.
Wins over Greensburg Central Catholic, Seton-LaSalle again, and Beaver Falls, all by at least 24 points, put the Lions into the championship game against perennial powerhouse Aliquippa.
In a back-and-forth contest, the Lions found themselves down by a point when they got the ball back with 4:01 left in the game. But it didn't take junior quarterback Brett Brumbaugh long to move South Fayette down the field. In took only three passes, the last a 19-yarder to Connor Beck, and 1:13 of the game clock to put the Lions into the end zone to give South Fayette the lead for good in a 34-28 victory.
"You beat the likes of Aliquippa, which is the standard of Class AA football, and that's going to give you a lot more confidence," Rossi said.
The Lions showed that confidence in a 58-7 thrashing of District 6 champion Karns City in the PIAA Class AA quarterfinals the following week.
But on a blistery Dec. 7 day at Slippery Rock University, the Lions played possibly their worst game of the season against Hickory in the state semifinals.
The Hornets made it tough for Brumbaugh and his deep receiving corps to get anything going by dropping nine and sometimes 10 players into coverage. The Lions turned the ball over four times and found themselves down, 14-9, late in the third quarter.
But senior running back Grant Fetchet took advantage of the lack of numbers the Hornets had to stop the run, rushing for 118 yards in the second half to help South Fayette pull out a 23-20 victory and advance to the state final for the second time in four years.
"They knew our signals -- videotaped them, reportedly -- and knew what was coming," Rossi said. "It was that game for us where we didn't have our best showing, but we were able to pull it out. Then [in the state final], we were clicking on all cylinders."
If just playing in a state final wasn't enough motivation for South Fayette, the Lions got some more when an article published late last week on Philadelphia's CBS affiliate website predicted South Fayette "would get stomped" by Imhotep Charter by a score of 50-6.
"We had that pinned up all over our hotel," Rossi said.
Junior tight end Logan Sharp set the tone early, catching a ball out in the flat and running over Imhotep's Deandre Scott, an Arizona State recruit. Meanwhile, Brumbaugh drew the Panthers offside four times on the opening drive, which ended in a touchdown pass from Brumbaugh to Justin Watson.
The pair would hook up again for another touchdown later in the first half and Brumbaugh also connected with Sharp for a 53-yard scoring strike as the Lions' led 35-0 at the break.
Watson credited the team's great week of practice, which included an extra day Saturday due to the PIAA pushing back the game a day because of weather, to the team's crispness Sunday.
"We had a great week of practice," Watson said. "We got on the field an extra day and that helped us learn more about [Imhotep]. We knew we couldn't afford to come out flat."
In addition to the state title, the Lions set two WPIAL records Sunday. Watson (1,568 yards) broke the record for receiving yards in a season, which was held by Seton-LaSalle's Carmen Connolly at 1,545. Brumbaugh (3,917) broke the WPIAL single-season passing yards record of 3,726, which was held by his brother, Christian, in 2010.
The Lions also made the PIAA final that year, but lost, 50-14, to Philadelphia West Catholic.
"It was about the state championship first, but I know Brett wanted to break his brother's record and I thought if he did I may be able to get the receiving record, too," Watson said. "It was the icing on the cake."
Now the Lions will have their sights set on becoming the first Class AA team, dating back to 1988, to win back-to-back PIAA titles.
South Fayette will have to replace 11 seniors, including Watson, Beck and Fetchet. But Brumbaugh returns, as does Sharp and the team's second- and third-leading rushers, Hunter Hayes and J.J. Walker.
Rossi believes advancing all the way to the championship will have benefits extending into next season.
"Well, first of all, we have our quarterback back and that is always important," Rossi said. "We lose 11 seniors, a collection of kids who were great for this program. But those seven extra weeks of practicing and playing for those younger kids is so vital."