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Avella looks to keep ball rolling after breakthrough season

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Thursday, August 26, 2021 | 9:13 PM


For Avella coach Ryan Cecchini, last year’s run to the playoffs showed that even if his program doesn’t always have the biggest roster, it can compete in the WPIAL.

The Eagles surprised a lot of people by finishing second in the Tri-County South and earning their first playoff berth since 2016 after winning a total of four games the previous three years.

Cecchini has guided the Eagles to the playoffs four times in his 10 years at the helm after a gulf of 37 years without a playoff berth, so he knows it can be done again.

The challenge this year, however, is replacing eight starters who played an integral part in last year’s success.

“That was basically a third of our team,” Cecchini said. “Six of them were two-way starters and the other two started on one side of the ball. It’s going to be tough to replace them. It was a great group.”

The Eagles do have several key players returning, and that starts with senior quarterback K.J. Rush.

Rush led the team in passing and rushing as a unique combination of size and strength at the quarterback position.

“He’s 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and he can run the ball,” Cecchini said. “He’s kind of like a fullback that can play quarterback. He’s hard to bring down. He’s a downhill, in-your-face runner and he can throw the ball. That’s something that these teams in Class A don’t see a lot of.”

Noah Markle, a senior, returns at running back. Cecchini described Markle as a good complement to Rush as a quicker, slashing type back compared to the brute force Rush brings.

The Eagles graduated Tanner Terensky, the top downfield receiving threat, but return an experienced target in Brandon Samol.

“Brandon was like our possession receiver last year, and we’re going to ask him to make some big plays down the field,” Cecchini said. “Terensky had a great season for us with over 400 yards receiving. He’ll be tough to replace, but I believe Brandon is more than capable of doing that.”

Cecchini said junior tight end/wide receiver Chasten McConn had a good summer and is trending toward being a key contributor. The Eagles are looking for others to step up and show they are capable of filling roles. There are around 20 kids on the roster, and the hope is that they can build off the success of last year.

“Anytime you have a winning season, it rubs off on the kids that were there,” Cecchini said. “The part you have to try and work through is with the kids that weren’t there, like the incoming freshmen and new ones that signed up. You have to bring them along to where the other kids are. That’s where K.J., Noah, Brandon and Harrison (Fisher) come in. They are all willing and capable to step up and lead the younger guys.”

Fisher, a 6-foot-3, 365-pound lineman, leads the defense. He takes up plenty space and attention from opposing offensive linemen.

“He stuffs the middle and everyone else plays from there,” Cecchini said. “He’s so big even when you’re not trying to double team him, it’s hard for offensive linemen to get around him to go to a linebacker.”

The Eagles start the season in a unique way by playing a nonconference game in Week Zero against a conference opponent, Mapletown. It’s something that both schools agreed to do several years ago due to the similar size of the schools and their rosters. Each had trouble finding a comparable Week Zero opponent, so they play twice each year with the second meeting counting towards Tri-County South play.

“We always have competitive games with Mapletown, so we decided to play a home-and-home every year,” Cecchini said. “It’s really worked out well for both teams the last four or five years.”

Avella

Coach: Ryan Cecchini

2020 record: 5-3, 5-2 in Class A Tri-County South

All-time record: 352-476-26

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.27 at Mapletown, 7

9.3 at Fort Cherry, 7

9.10 Burgettstown, 7

9.17 at Jefferson-Morgan*, 7

9.24 West Greene*, 7

10.1 at California*, 7

10.8 Mapletown*, 7

10.15 Bentworth*, 7

10.22 at Carmichaels*, 7

10.29 Monessen*, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: K.J. Rush

Rushing: Rush

Receiving: Tanner Terensky*

*Graduated

FAST FACTS

• With a male enrollment of 67, Avella was the third-smallest public school in the WPIAL for football in the current two-year cycle that began in 2020. Only Mapletown and Cornell are smaller public schools that offer football, and Imani Christian is the lone private school with a smaller enrollment than Avella.

• Avella has three WPIAL championships. Two of the titles came as co-champions. In 1941, the Eagles shared the title with Millvale and were co-champs with Montour in 1957 after a 7-7 tie in the championship game. The Eagles won the 1961 Class A title outright by defeating Washington Township, 13-0. They lost in the WPIAL championship in 1963, ’66, ’75 and ’76.

• Prior to last year’s runner-up finish in the Tri-County South, Avella had won only two conference games the previous three seasons. They beat Carmichaels, 14-7, the final week of the regular season to clinch second place.

• In four of Avella’s five wins last year, it held opponents to one touchdown. The exception was a 21-20 win over West Greene.

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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