Growing up, Dan Vaughan didn’t live far away from the University of Pittsburgh’s current home field.
“I live about seven miles from the stadium,” Vaughan said.
This year, Vaughan will be playing inside the stadium, as the Syracuse Orange (5-6, 1-5 Big East) take on the Pittsburgh Panthers (5-6, 3-3 Big East) in a must-win game for both teams at 12 p.m. Saturday. Each sits one win away from bowl contention, meaning the loser will not have a postseason this year. It’s a huge game for the Orange, who are coming off an 8-5 season that saw the team win its first bowl game under head coach Doug Marrone.
Four years ago, though, Vaughan played on that Heinz Field turf. He was a senior on the Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School team that won a 35-34 overtime thriller over Gateway High School for the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League AAAA title. The victory would be a catalyst for Central Catholic, as they would go on to win the Pennsylvania State AAAA title that season.
For Vaughan, who played H-back and defensive end on the team his senior year at CCHS, it’s a game he’ll never forget.
“It was absolute craziness,” Vaughan said of the game.
During that season, Vaughan received multiple scholarships to play football at the FBS level. He received scholarships not only from Syracuse, but also from the University of Pittsburgh, which was mere blocks from CCHS. However, the Panthers would eventually rescind their scholarship and Vaughan would make the trip to Central New York.
It’s a trip that he’s never regretted.
“I love Syracuse,” Vaughan said. “I really wouldn’t want to come anywhere else.”
That’s not to say that Vaughan immediately found success at the school. The linebacker spent the last two seasons playing on the special teams unit, registering just 10 total tackles. For the former high school star, it was an adjustment.
This season, though, Vaughan has found his place on the linebacker unit. He’s settled into a starting role with Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis. The senior from Pittsburgh has also made some noticeable contributions for the Orange this season, as he is the current active leader in tackles, with 66, and is also tied for the team lead in forced fumbles, with two.
More impressive, though, has been Vaughan’s consistency. The senior has only had four games this season where he’s recorded less than five tackles. He’s also had a 15-tackle game this season against the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers.
For Vaughan, his game begins with his football instincts.
“I’d say my knowledge of the defense, first,” Vaughn said of his best attribute. “I just know where I’m supposed to be and know what I’m supposed to do.”
His teammates agree. Davis, the freshman who has been a revelation in his first season with his physical play, says that Vaughan has been a large help to hid game this season and a leader for the group.
“From the moment I first stepped in here, I knew Dan was a good leader,” Davis said. “He’s a guy that does everything right.”
Another impressed person is Vaughan’s position coach, Dan Conley, who says Vaughan has been a large part of the group’s success this season.
“He’s a really accountable kid with great effort and that’s why he’s been able to get on the field and play so much,” Conley said. “You can count on him being in the right spot at the right time, a high percentage of the time.”
Now, as the season comes to a close, the scene shifts to Pittsburgh, Vaughan and Conley’s hometown. Conley, a former linebacker for the Orange, would have had an opportunity to play in this game were it not for some outside circumstances.
“It’s something I never got a chance to do,” Conley said. “I never got a chance to go home and play at Pitt. I was always hurt. So I was disappointed with that, but being a coach and being able to go back to Pittsburgh is always great.”
Vaughan will be making that trek home Saturday. His chance at a postseason will depend on a game played in front of family and friends. He’ll also be facing off against former high school teammates Andrew Taglianetti, a special teams contributor at defensive back, and Tino Sunseri, the Panthers starting quarterback.
This time, the group will be facing off against each other, rather than trying to defeat a common opponent. This time, only one of those players will be able to move on to another game.
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