|Grove City athletics photo
By Joe Sager
Andrew DiDonato’s project for Grove City was clear – build the Wolverines into a PAC contender.
The second-year coach just didn’t realize there would be a change to the blueprints so soon. Sophomore quarterback Brett Laffoon, who set freshman program passing records last year, appeared to be a key building block for the program. However, he suffered a concussion in the team’s opener this fall and decided against resuming his playing career.
Enter Randall Labrie. The sophomore stepped into the starting QB spot and progress accelerated for Grove City, which snapped a 33-game losing streak and finished 4-6.
“When the opportunity arose, I was ready for it,” Labrie said. “When the team needed me, I stepped in and was ready to go. It’s been a great ride, so far.”
The change may not seem like much on paper, but it was a big one for the Wolverines. Pinson guided a no-huddle, pass-first offense that DiDonato became familiar with during his playing days and time spent as a highly successful assistant coach at South Fayette High School.
Labrie brings a radically different skillset.
“I am more of a dual threat and we went from primarily a pocket passing team,” he said. “There was a transition period where the offense didn’t know its identity. The offense didn’t change, but the way we ran it did. We found our identity.”
Redefining an offense after Game 1 isn’t exactly a welcome task for any team. It’s one the Wolverines faced, though, and DiDonato praised Labrie’s leadership for making the transition smooth.
“We really sat down after the first couple weeks to talk about who we were and what our identity was,” DiDonato said. “Overall, we wanted to slow things down. We decided to run the football first and, when teams adjusted, we’d go with the pass.
“The neat thing about Randall, from the moment he stepped on campus, is the look in his eye. In meetings, you could see how on board he is with where we’re going and I’m very impressed with his mindset and attitude. Backup quarterbacks need to prepare as if they’re starting and he truly lived that out. He had more questions than anybody. He bought into the offense, his reads and his checks. So, when things happened at the beginning of the year and he had to step in, we had no concerns whatsoever.
“Coaches talk about young players and having the right attitude and trying to develop character. His attitude and leadership when he wasn’t a starter were better or as good as anybody. That’s why people were ready to follow him from the start.”
Lopsided losses to PAC juggernauts Washington & Jefferson and Case Western Reserve loomed in Weeks 2 and 3. Still, the Wolverines made headway and broke through for a 24-14 win over St. Vincent in Week 4 during a rare home night game. It was the program’s first triumph since Nov. 16, 2013.
“That was one of the most memorable things I’ll ever be a part of and I’ve played since I was 6,” Labrie said. “I’ve never been in an atmosphere like that. When I took the final knee and the crowd rushed the field – it was something special and the whole community came together. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
From that point on, the offense averaged nearly 28 points per game as the Wolverines closed their schedule with a 4-3 run. They capped the year with a 51-point eruption in a win vs. Thiel.
“Halfway through the season, I felt the game really start to slow down and I felt back to a normal level like when I was playing regularly. That’s when I started feeling comfortable and the offense started clicking and everything started to roll there,” Labrie said. “I just really see this team as a family. Everyone has come together as a one. That’s special. In a lot of programs, you don’t see that. I can see the love between all the guys on the field and that makes it so much more fun.”
“Defensively and offensively, the whole team came together,” DiDonato said. “Randall played a huge role in entire team coming together. One of best compliments I got for Randall was when one of our senior captains, who is a defensive player, said to me, ‘Coach, I think Randall is the best leader I’ve played with at any level.’ For a senior to say a sophomore was the best leader he’s ever seen is pretty impressive. How he has been able to lead has been key a piece to us playing together.
“People look at him and see his tenacity and work ethic. Then, I think of him being the first guy out on the field clapping and rallying the guys. He has a mindset, not only with his work ethic, but with his verbal communication skills that you don’t see very often in such a young player.”
Labrie’s leadership is key as Grove City boasts a young core. Leading rusher Wesley Schools (1,266 yards) is a sophomore, while top receiver Cody Gustafson (815) is a freshman. Almost the rest of the offense and half the defense returns, too.
“I think that’s a big thing for us. Because we’re so young, we have so much time together to build as a team,” Labrie said. “I think the years to come could be really special here if we approach it the right way and stay focused on what we did to get to this point. We’re definitely happy how far we’ve come and the team definitely has more confidence than it has had in a long time, but we’re not going to be complacent. The ultimate vision is to compete for PAC championships. Until we reach that point, we won’t be satisfied.”
Washington & Jefferson’s 42-0 win over Waynesburg was special in many ways for the Presidents (10-0). First, it locked up the program’s 25th PAC championship – and first since 2014.
Individually, senior all-everything wide receiver Jesse Zubik set the program record for career receptions with 13 catches for 250 yards. He has 272 catches for 4,558 yards and 51 touchdowns in 42 career games. He is the PAC’s all-time yardage and touchdown leader.
Head coach Mike Sirianni, who is in his 15th season at the helm, notched his 138th career win, which moved him into sole possession of first place on the W&J career wins list, past John Luckhardt (1982-1998).
Case Western Reserve clinched a share of the PAC title with Washington & Jefferson via a wild 41-34 overtime win at Carnegie Mellon.
The Spartans secured their first PAC title since joining the conference as an affiliate member prior to the start of the 2014 campaign. With a perfect 8-0 record in conference play, CWRU finished tied atop the standings with W&J (the two teams did not meet due to the PAC’s unbalanced schedule). By virtue of the tiebreaker (strength of conference victories), the Presidents claimed the PAC’s automatic bid to the playoffs, but Case Western received an at-large bid.
Surviving a scare
John Carroll was trying to make it two wins over Mount Union in two years. However, the Purple Raiders held on for a 31-27 road win.
The Blue Streaks stunned Mount Union last year with a 31-28 victory to capture the OAC championship. The Raiders rebounded to reach the national semifinals.
This year’s OAC title is the 28th in program history for Mount Union.
In the polls
No. 2 Mount Union (10-0) defeated John Carroll, 31-27. The Purple Raiders open the playoffs against Washington & Lee.
No. 12 Wittenberg (10-0) beat Wooster, 47-21, to wrap up the NCAC championship. The Tigers welcome Frostburg State to open the playoffs.
No. 14 Washington & Jefferson (10-0) cruised past Waynesburg, 42-0. The Presidents play host to Johns Hopkins to open the playoffs.
No. 16 Case Western Reserve (10-0) held off Carnegie Mellon, 41-34. The Spartans visit Illinois Wesleyan to begin playoff action.
No. 25 Trine (10-0) beat Olivet, 28-6, to secure the MIAA title. The Thunder welcomes Monmouth to open the postseason.