There’s been one topic of conversation throughout the offseason for McKeesport senior quarterback John Harper and his teammates: How can the Tigers follow their best season in 11 years by taking another stride forward?
McKeesport reached Heinz Field to play in the newly-created WPIAL 5A championship game last December before falling in a heart-wrenching overtime contest, 38-37, to West Allegheny.
“That’s all we’ve been talking about every day, honestly,” said Harper, who will start under center for the first time after playing at running back and defensive back last season.
The Tigers, who finished 9-3 last season and tied for second place in the Big East Conference, won the last of their three WPIAL crowns Class 4A back in 2005.
McKeesport will kick off its run toward another championship at 7 p.m. Friday against Franklin Regional in Murrysville. (Editor's note: The game will be televised on WPNT-TV "The Point" 22.)
Getting back to the championship game is important for second-year coach Matt Miller. Miller, a 1992 McKeesport graduate, still lives in the same neighborhood he grew up near Renziehausen Park.
Upholding the standard laid down by previous teams is especially important for him. How 2016 ended made it easier for Miller to run practices.
“It took 11 years for us to get back,” Miller said. “Those kids got a taste of success and it pushed us hard during the offseason workouts. It would be something in the back of their minds, talking about how close we were. It makes them dig deeper in practice and workouts we had in the offseason.”
Harper’s been preparing for his new role for a few seasons. Taking over for Jayvaun Shears will be a challenge. Shears, who now plays for the University of Maine, rushed for 1,198 yards and scored 25 touchdowns during his senior season.
“My sophomore year I was practicing quarterback,” Harper said. “My junior year I was still practicing quarterback in case Jayvaun got injured. Really all you have to do is focus on your read key and do what it tells you to do.”
Harper, who rushed for 428 yards and three scores as a junior, will help plenty of experience behind him. Running backs Layton Jordan and Carlinos Acie tallied 670 and 662 rushing yards, respectively, last season.
Bringing these players back will help make up for some inexperience on the offensive line.
“We are hoping with the couple guys with a lot of experience are able to make the transition for the younger players a lot easier,” Miller said.
Harper hopes that progression will lead back to Heinz Field and maybe to Hershey Park.
Navigating through a challenging conference will be the first step to a better conversation.
“I think it’s great,” Miller said of the Big East. “ I think every week is a meaningful game. A great team like Penn-Trafford didn’t make the playoffs last year. We wanted to pound into our kids a sense of urgency. Every game is important, every practice is important.”
Josh Rizzo is a freelance writer. This is his first article for Tube City Almanac.
McKeesport Tigers football schedule
- Sept. 1 at Franklin Regional*
- Sept. 8 at Armstrong*
- Sept. 15 Connellsville*
- Sept. 22 at Plum*
- Sept. 30 Latrobe*
- Oct. 6 at Kiski Area*
- Oct. 13 Upper. St. Clair
- Oct. 20 at Gateway*
- Oct. 27 Penn-Trafford*
*Big East Conference games
Originally published August 31, 2017.