MONACA — It’s hard not to view the Central Valley High School football program as one that thrives from its star power. In the past decade, Mark Lyons has had the opportunity to coach a fair share of high end talent.
More than a few of his former players have gone on to find success at the next level, some have gone on to achieve some of the games greatest honors, being a part of College National Championship and Super Bowl teams.
At face value, this year looks to be no different for Central Valley. On offense, the Warriors have one of the top running backs in the state, Landon Alexander, who is well on his way to becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher.
On the other side of the ball, you’ll find Sean FitzSimmons, the top rated recruit in Beaver County who verbally committed to Pitt last winter. A few players down from him on the defensive front is Matt Merritt, a scrappy linebacker with a handful of Division I offers.
Even in the secondary, the Warriors have superstars. Junior Jayvin Thompson doesn’t have any college offers at this moment, but has been gaining attention from notable programs like Pitt and Syracuse, thanks to his strong play which includes six interceptions on the season, and five touchdown catches on offense.
There’s no doubt about it, the Warriors have some superstars. But, if Central Valley is going to continue its dominance in PIAA Class 3A, it will be not due to its high profile talents, but because of the bulk of solid players around them.
THE ELDER STATESMAN
This year’s senior class for Central Valley has played in a lot of big football games. In each of the past three seasons, the Warriors have qualified for the WPIAL Class 3A playoffs. The past two years, they’ve won the WPIAL and advanced to the PIAA Final. And then of course last year, they won the whole thing, bringing home the program’s first state championship.
Senior defensive back Bryce Wilson has been a starter throughout the entire run.
Wilson isn’t what you think of when picturing a four-year starter at a state-championship program. Standing at just 5-foot-9 and weighing just over 160 pounds, he doesn’t stand out when you see his name on the roster.
That changes, however, when you watch him play. A combination of fearlessness, physicality, and knowledge of the game helped Wilson earn the trust of Lyons early on.
“He’s always been willing to stick his nose in there and get involved,” Lyons said. “He makes some big tackles for us because he’s not afraid to get in there and get dirty.”
A breakout game against Keystone Oaks just five weeks into his varsity career showed that Lyon’s judgement was correct. From that point on, the only thing that kept Wilson out of the starting lineup was injuries.
Wilson is one of the few players who played a significant role in arguably the most underrated wins in the history of Central Valley’s young program: Its first win over Aliquippa, which took place in 2018.
The matchup took place in the final game of the regular season and the Warriors needed a win to reach the playoffs. To the shock of everyone but themselves, they were able to get the job done against a Quips team that went on to win the state title just a month later.
“People didn’t give us any hope,” Wilson said. “We came out and battled with them. They really couldn’t do much against us. It’s one of my favorite regular season games I’ve ever been a part of.”
Wilson is one of the players who serves as the heart and soul of Central Valley’s squad, which is what made his season-ending knee injury that he suffered in last year’s WPIAL championship game extra devastating for his teammates.
Rather than sitting around and sulking about the fact that he was unable to play in the state playoffs, Wilson wasted no time on his road to recovery. His hard work in the offseason allowed him to return at full health this summer, something that Lyons is still amazed by.
“I’m shocked at how fast he was able to get back and the caliber of play that he is able to be at,” Lyons said. “He’s actually faster and stronger than before.”
“It was a pretty long process, but it also went quickly at the same time,” Wilson said. “Three months after surgery, I was already jogging. The doctor said that was like the fastest recovery he’d seen. I had surgery on December 3, and he cleared me some time in April. …Now I feel like it’s stronger than ever before.”
Now in his final season at Central Valley, Wilson is no longer the scrappy young spark plug on the Warriors defense — he’s instead the savvy veteran. With numerous first-year starters alongside him in the secondary, the coaching staff relies on Wilson to be both a great player and leader. Lyons is pleased with his output in both areas.
“He’s the calming voice back there. He’s the elder statesman,” Lyons said. “He understands everything we do on the field. We ask a lot of him and he delivers.”
THE OTHER BIG GUY
The saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” applies to many things in life, but according to Lyons, Jackson Tonya isn’t one of them. Following a sophomore season where he received All-State honors as an offensive tackle, Tonya had his position switched to center — something that he originally wasn’t a fan of.
“It took me back a little bit,” Tonya said. “I was surprised but up for the challenge. It took some time but I learned to really love it. Being the field general of the offensive line is different. I like stepping up a little bit.”
Tonya’s tune quickly changed once he understood the responsibility that he was inheriting. A solid athlete and honors student, Lyons believed Tonya was an ideal fit for the role. Once again, he was right.
“He’s helped us tremendously,” Lyons said. “It’s a risk moving someone who was an All-State offensive tackle as a sophomore, but we knew with his athleticism, that he could handle it. We do a lot with that position. He makes a lot of calls up front and is someone we use out on the edge. He’ll pull at any given time. He’s the perfect fit for the job.”
Tonya’s ability to learn quickly has helped the Warriors more than most understand. Not only has he made life easier for his teammates up front, but also the pair of quarterbacks he protects each time he snaps the ball.
Both Merritt and junior Antwon Johnson have started under center for the Warriors this season. Having a first year starter at quarterback can make things complicated at times, and Central Valley has that challenge times two. However, Lyons says the stable play of Tonya has allowed for the entire Warriors’ backfield to thrive.
“He’s one of those guys that you have to remind yourself to get him a break,” Lyons said. “He’s the first one at practice every day. He goes 100% every snap. He’s the first one in film and in the weight room. He’s one of those guys where if you could cut out a mold and make 50 of him, you’re going to have a great football team.”
Tonya is a big contributor on both sides of the ball, making up a key part of Central Valley’s lethal defensive line. Most who watch Central Valley from a far assume that the Warriors’ dominance up front is strictly due to FitzSimmons. A quick look at the stats would prove otherwise.
While FitzSimmons is the certainly headliner, Tonya is no slouch. Tonya is second on the team in tackles (49) and sacks (5.0). Although he trails FitzSimmons in both categories, he says he has no issue being the Robin to his senior teammate’s Batman.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Tonya said. “I love having him by my side on both sides of the ball. He helps me out every play and makes me better.”
THE BABY BROTHER
Toughness is the only option for most baby brothers in sports families, especially in the FitzSimmons household. It’s not uncommon for older siblings to rough up the runt of the family. It’s a bit unfortunate when your two older brothers happen to be an All-State middle linebacker and a three star defensive line recruit that plans to play football next fall at…