November was a month to remember for more than just a few area high school football teams. Homer-Center led the pack with its first District 6 championship and state playoff appearance since 1994, while Apollo-Ridge and Indiana made it further in the WPIAL playoffs than they had in some time.
And the four individuals who had the most to do with their teams’ overall success have been honored as the best of the All-Gazette Football team in 2013.
Greg Page, of Homer-Center, was selected coach of the year. A pair of Division I recruits from Indiana, Darrious Carter and Cody Squiric, were picked as defensive player of the year and lineman of the year, respectively. Jesse Zelonka, a two-year starting quarterback for Apollo-Ridge, was named offensive player of the year.
“I’m just really proud of what we did,” said Squiric, whose Indiana team won its first playoff game since 2010.
“None of us seniors wanted to go out of our senior season with no playoff wins,” added Carter.
A standout defensive end and wide receiver, Carter verbally committed in July to play at Temple. He is still considering Virginia, though, going into February’s signing date.
“Playing defense is what I like to do. That’s pretty much it,” Carter said. “We had a great season. Our defense was our strong point. Our linebackers and secondary helped a lot, and we got a lot better from last year.”
At 6-foot, 305 pounds, Squiric became a two-way starter for the first time his senior season, playing offensive guard and defensive tackle. All he did was earn WPIAL Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference first-team honors on both sides of the ball.
He’ll join 2013 Indiana graduate and last year’s lineman of the year, Justin Spencer, at Youngstown State in the NCAA Division I FCS ranks.
“I’m really looking forward to going to play with Justin,” Squiric said. “We talked about it last year, because we didn’t know what was going to happen with me. We told each other last year, this might be our last time playing with each other, but it’s really cool that we’re going to be able to play side-by-side another three or four years.”
Squiric will play offense, at guard and center, for the Penguins. Spencer is an offensive tackle.
“I’d always been a defensive guy,” Squiric said. “So, playing offense this year, it opened up many doors for me to play at the next level. I had a love for defense because I played it my freshman year the whole way to my senior year, but as an offensive lineman, I feel as if I contribute more. My skills are used more as an offensive lineman. I just bring more to the table as an offensive lineman.”
At Apollo-Ridge, Zelonka helped guide the Vikings to the playoffs as a junior in 2012. This year, with a lot more attention, the Vikings took it a step further, knocking off Beth-Center in the first round of the WPIAL Class A playoffs before losing to eventual runner-up Sto-Rox.
Zelonka didn’t throw an interception until that final game, going 96 of 175 passing for 1,613 yards and 25 touchdowns versus that one interception. His marks in efficiency, yardage and touchdowns led the area, all the while leading the Vikings with 779 yards rushing and six touchdowns.
“From last season’s experience, we all had high expectations, and we knew we could fulfill those expectations with the talent we had and the brotherhood we had,” he said. “We just worked really hard in the offseason, came together and played the game we love to play.”
Zelonka had a special bond with his receivers, the top three of which were All-Gazette selections: Duane Brown, Alex Smith and Tre Tipton.
“Mid-game and we’d be down a couple touchdowns, we could still joke around,” Zelonka said. “Those guys were my go-to dudes. Anytime I was in trouble, I knew that I could just toss it up to them, and they’d come down with it, no matter what.”
In the regular season, Apollo-Ridge lost only to undefeated North Catholic, the eventual WPIAL and state champion, and once-beaten Avonworth, posting an 8-3 overall record while competing in a tough WPIAL Class A Eastern Conference.
“It was really nice being part of a team that really turned the program around,” Zelonka said. “Bringing (coach) John Skiba in was probably the best decision (Apollo-Ridge) ever made. He made us turn the football program around. We saw it in him. He believed in us, and after last year, fans started believing in us. So that really helped us go out there and win each game, play for our fans, play for our family and play for each other.”
Earning honors as the top coach this season, though, was Page, who guided Homer-Center to its best finish in 19 years, and did so just two years after an 0-9 campaign.
Never one to seek the spotlight, Page spread the honor to Tony Arone, Mike Arone, Matt Rodkey, Gene Raymond, Rob Nymick, Joe Iezzi, Shawn “Dude” Steffee, Nick Raymond, Don Meester and Matt “Mookie” Wilson — his assistant coaches.
“You don’t have this kind of season without outstanding coaches, and we had a lot of really good football players,” Page said. “With us, it’s always been about everybody buying in and working together. Certainly, I’m the head coach, and I know there are certain responsibilities and leadership that are supposed to go with that, but it has to be something that everybody involved in the program understands, and our people do. It’s nothing fancy, it’s about coming out and working hard every day, trying to get better and playing the game the right way.”
This is Page’s second coach of the year award. He also won in 2010, when the Wildcats went 7-0 after an 0-2 start. Homer-Center players have always been coachable, reflecting Page’s philosophies and work ethic.
“We try to be very detail-oriented and technique-oriented with a lot of what we do, so your kids have to buy in,” he said. “Our kids are resilient. They’ve been like that. That’s the way they are in this town. They’re taught from a young age playing the game of football that you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to want to be physical and play the game hard, and that carries up through.”