Wednesday, November 20, 2013

WPIAL Championship Preview

This is it.  Eight teams will do battle on the Heinz Field turf for the right to be called WPIAL Champions. Six of those teams enter Championship Saturday with unblemished records, looking to maintain their perfect seasons. The top classifications feature battles of traditional powerhouses with Central Catholic and Woodland Hills squaring off in Quad-A. Between the two they have won eight of the 17 Quad-A Championships since 1996. In that same time span, West Allegheny has been the dominant program in AAA, winning 6 championships. The Indians are the defending AAA Champions and look to repeat against Central Valley who is quickly becoming the AAA version of Woodland Hills. In AA, two powerhouses collide when Aliquippa meets South Fayette. Like West Allegheny, the Quips have won the title 6 times since 1996, and like Woodland Hills are making their 10th title game appearance in that time. Single-A is the only classification with an entrant to the title game that has never hoisted the trophy before as my alma mater the North Catholic Trojans make their first Championship Game appearance in school history.

2. Central Catholic (12-0) vs. 4. Woodland Hills (10-2)
Location: Heinz Field
Time: 2:00pm

View AAAA Championship in a larger map

Playoff History: Since the incorporation of Woodland Hills High School, the Wolverines are 3-1 against Central Catholic in the playoffs

Since the WPIAL playoffs expanded to 4 rounds in 1996, Woodland Hills has been the most dominant program in the region's highest classification. The Wolverines have won 5 Championships in that time, trailing only West Allegheny, Aliquippa and Clairton who have hoisted the trophy 6 times. This will be Woody High's 4th trip to Heinz Field in the last 5 years, though they have not won it all since 2009. This will be Central's first trip to Heinz Field since they won it all in 2007 which ended a dominant span where the Vikings won 3 titles in 5 years.

Central Catholic was the Northern Eight Conference Champions and ran through their schedule with one of the most dominant defenses in Quad-A . Talented linebacker Niko Thorpe led a defense that pitched 6 shutouts on the season and only surrendered more than two scores once (21 points to Gateway in the quarterfinals). On offense, the Vikings running game has been so good that they have not needed to use their Florida State-recruit QB JJ Cosentino much at all this year. Senior RB Luigi Lista-Brinza has run for over 1200 yards and 14 TDs while battling injuries all season. Lista-Brinza was injured in the second quarter of the semi-final game against Penn-Trafford, but backup Riley Redman stepped in and ran for 81 yards and 2 TDs, giving him over 1000 yards on the season.

Woodland Hills was a team that many pegged in the preseason as the best Quad-A team in the state, but that attitude cooled after the Wolverines dropped their first two games. Since then, Woody High has not lost and avenged their Week 1 loss to Upper St Clair in the semi-finals. In the regular season, Woody High did it on the ground with sophomore RB Miles Sanders rushing for over 1000 yards. In the playoffs, dual-threat QB Harry Randall has carried the team with Sanders missing time due to injury. Randall rushed for 160 yards and 2 TDs in the quarterfinals then followed up with 85 yards and a touchdown in the Semi-Finals to go with 117 passing yards and another score. The Wolverines got two big plays from senior Trevon Mathis to lead them past Upper St Clair: an 80-yard touchdown reception from Randall to tie the game at 7 then a kickoff return for a touchdown to start the second half and extend the lead to 28-7. Mathis also batted down a pass into the end zone on 4th and goal from the 2 at the end of the game as the Panthers were trying to tie the game.

1. West Allegheny (12-0) vs. 3. Central Valley (11-1)
Location: Heinz Field
Time: 8:00pm

View AAA Championship in a larger map

Playoff History: This is the first playoff meeting between West Allegheny and Central Valley

Central Valley has only been in existence for four seasons (since the merger of Center and Monaca school districts) but they have been a dominant program in AAA. This is their second trip to the Championship Game (having won it all in their school's first year in 2010) and reached the semi-finals in 2011 and 2012. West Allegheny has been a dominant force in AAA since the playoffs expanded in 1996. As hard as it may be to believe, West Allegheny's first ever appearance in the WPIAL playoffs came in 1993, the 44th year of the school's existence. West A moved up to AAA in 1994 and returned to the playoffs in 1997, winning their first of 6 AAA Championships in a 16-year span where they missed the playoffs only once. Between the two, they have appeared in 7 Championship Games and have never lost.

West Allegheny is the defending AAA Champions and have not lost to a WPIAL team since September 2012 when Central Valley topped them 28-14, carrying a 20-game WPIAL winning streak into the Championship Game. The schools have split their four meetings with only that 2012 contest being decided by more than 4 points. This season's game proved to be a defensive struggle with West Allegheny coming out on top 13-7. The Indians have been dynamic on offense this season with leading rusher Chayse Dillon running for 172 yards and 3 touchdowns in the semi-finals. Dillon has rushed for over 1100 on the season and QB Andrew Koester has thrown for over 1300 and 19 touchdowns. The Indians third weapon on offense has been Tory Delmonico who is the leading receiver, second leading rusher, and leads the team in scoring with 18 touchdowns.

These teams have been almost mirror images of each other this season. Both have been dominant on defense and outstanding on offense. West Allegheny was held under 38 points only twice (to 13 in the first meeting with Central Valley and to 21 in the semi-finals by Franklin Regional) while they have only allowed one team (New Castle) to break 17 points. Central Valley was only held under 29 points twice (7 by West Allegheny and 23 by Thomas Jefferson in the semis) and only Mars in the quarterfinals scored more than 14 against the Warriors defense. For most of the season, Central Valley relied on their own two-headed beast in the backfield of Jordan Whitehead and JaQuan Pennington. Whitehead and Pennington led the team in both rushing and receiving, totaling over 2000 yards of total offense and 30 TDs. In the semi-finals, it was QB John George who led the team to victory with 146 passing yards and being involved in all 3 touchdowns - throwing for 2 and rushing for another. Both of these teams are run-the-ball-and-play-defense squads and the game could hinge on a key defensive or special teams play.

1. Aliquippa (12-0) vs. 2. South Fayette (12-0)
Location: Heinz Field
Time: 5:00pm

View AA Championship in a larger map

Playoff History: Since 1980 the Quips and Lions have met twice in the playoffs, each winning once.

Aliquippa enters the Championship game as the two-time defending Champions, their last loss to a WPIAL team coming on the Heinz Field turf to Christian Brumbaugh and the South Fayette Lions. Three years and 38 WPIAL wins later, the Quips find themselves in a familiar scenario, this time against a South Fayette team led by Christian's younger brother Brett. This marks the Quips sixth consecutive trip to Heinz Field and their ninth since 2000 where they have won 5 titles. They are in search of their 16th title in school history, which would extend their WPIAL record. Both teams enter the game with undefeated records and a string of utter dominance this season with both averaging over 47 points per game.

The defending Champion Quips have throttled everyone this season, scoring over 40 points in every game except their rivalry matchup with Beaver Falls where they scored 34. Led by running back duo Dravon Henry and Terry Swanson, the Quips have literally run over everyone they faced this year. Henry and Swanson became the first running back duo in WPIAL history to both rush for over 4000 yards in their career. This season, Swanson leads the way on offense with over 1500 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns while Henry has over 1100 yards and 26 touchdowns. With all the strength on the ground, it would seem easy to stack the box against the Quips, but QB Darrien Fields has been efficient this year, throwing for over 1000 yards and 14 TDs on just 94 attempts. The Quips have 4 players with D-1 offers, led by Henry (a 4-star defensive back who is down to Pitt, WVU and Alabama) and DT Jaleel Fields who has offers from numerous Big Ten schools. Terry Swanson and Jyler Turner have offers from MAC schools and Donovan Cobb has drawn some interest from Kansas State.

If there is one team in AA that could match the resume of the Quips, it is South Fayette. Led by junior QB Brett Brumbaugh who has thrown for nearly 2800 yards this season, the Lions weren't held under 40 points until the quarterfinals. Since then, their offense has "slumped," only putting up 31 in the quarters and 35 in the semis. Only two teams have scored more than once against South Fayette (McGuffey with 14 in Week 1 and Quaker Valley with 15). The Lions reached the title game by topping Beaver Falls for the 4th straight season and have gotten contributions from a plethora of playmakers on offense. In the backfield, Grant Fetchet has run for over 1100 yards and 19 TDs but it was backup RB JJ Walker who got the Lions out in front of Beaver Falls, scoring two first half touchdowns. On the outside, Brumbaugh's favorite receiver has been Connor Beck who has 60 catches for over 700 yards and 9 TDs while Justin Watson has been the big playmaker, averaging over 23 yards per catch with 51 receptions for 1205 yards and 15 TDs. This game should prove to be a matchup of strength on strength as South Fayette's dynamic passing attack with butt heads with the Quips secondary that is stacked with D1 talent.

1. Sto-Rox (12-0) vs. 2. North Catholic (12-0)
Location: Heinz Field
Time: 11:00am

View A Championship in a larger map

Playoff History: Since 1980 the Vikings and Trojans have met twice in the playoffs, each winning once.

Sto-Rox is appearing at Heinz Field for the 3rd consecutive season and the fourth time since 2003. Even though this will be the Vikings fourth appearance, they have never won a game on Heinz Field turf. Sto-Rox does have two WPIAL Championships in their school history in 1966 and 1987, both coming when they played in AA. North Catholic won championships in the once-formidable Catholic League, which disbanded in 1974 and has never played in a WPIAL Championship Game. These two teams are familiar with each other as they met last year in the semi-finals. Last year, Trojan sophomore PJ Fulmore carved up the Vikings defense to the tune of 204 yards and 2 TDs and had drawn within 2 points at 14-12 but could not overcome 3 interceptions and a stellar performance by Sto-Rox QB Lenny Williams who threw for two scores and ran for two more.

Sto-Rox's senior quarterback broke the WPIAL career passing record this year and enters the championship game with 2506 passing yards and 34 TDs on the season. In the semi-finals, Williams single-handedly carried the team to a victory over Clairton, who had toppled Sto-Rox in the previous two title games. Williams ran for 120 yards and two scores, including the game winner with just under two minutes to play. He also added an interception return for a touchdown on the defensive end to carry the Vikings back to the title game. Sto-Rox can attack in a variety of ways, with bruising back Brendan Blair (747 rushing yards, 239 receiving yards, 14 total TDs) and big-play receiver Mallory Claybourne who is averaging over 25 yards a catch with nearly 1000 yards and 16 TDs on the season.

The Trojans have been able to overcome the injury bug all season and carry an unblemished record into the first Championship Game in school history. Last year, North Catholic's offense almost exclusively featured PJ Fulmore out of a wildcat set. The Trojans set out to be different this season and installed junior Adam Sharlow at quarterback. This paid off when Fulmore went down with an ankle sprain in the opener against Apollo-Ridge, which the Trojans were able to pull off by a point in overtime. Fulmore would miss the next 4 games but fellow junior Jerome Turner would step up and carry the load, rushing for 568 yards and 14 TDs and averaging 10 yards per carry in Fulmore's absence. Turner ran for four scores against Springdale in Week 2 and five against West Shamokin in Week 5. Fulmore was able to return in Week 6 against Avonworth but just two weeks later the Trojans would lose QB Adam Sharlow to a season-ending knee injury in their first meeting with Neshannock. At the time of his injury, Sharlow had thrown for 877 yards and 8 TDs while rushing for 660 yards and 6 scores. With Sharlow out, coach Bob Ravenstahl went back to the formula that had worked last season, putting Fulmore in as the Wildcat quarterback.

In the playoffs, Fulmore has been an absolute workhorse, running behind a senior-laden offensive line, he has rushed for 496 yards on 94 carries in the playoffs. Last week, he shouldered the load with 42 carries for 216 yards and 4 touchdowns to lead the Trojans past Neshannock and into the title game. Unlike Sto-Rox's offense with the WPIAL's all-time leading passer, North Catholic has a run-heavy offense that is capable of controlling the clock for long periods of play. Against Neshannock in the semi-finals, the Trojans opened the game with a 6-minute touchdown drive then opened the second half after Neshannock fumbled the kickoff with another 6-minute touchdown drive. That's essentially an entire quarter of the game that North was able to take off the clock while putting 14 points on the board. Against an explosive offense like the Vikings, the Trojans will need to continue their dominance on the ground, which all starts up front with what Coach Ravenstahl has called "the best line in the state" where two linemen (Ryan Long and Dylan Grieco) were named to the All-Conference team. The Trojans are loaded with talented players at the offensive skill positions with senior receiver Ryan Kirby (who also has seen time at quarterback since Sharlow's injury) and tight end Ronnie Meder. Meder, Long and linebacker Josh Churchin (who were all first-team all conference) anchor a defense that has been absolutely lights out this season. The Trojans have only pitched one shutout this season, but they have also only allowed two teams (Apollo-Ridge in the opener and West Shamokin after the mercy rule was in effect) to surpass 14 points. Most impressively, the Trojans held Avonworth's explosive offense to just 19 total points in two games (the Lopes averaged over 39 per game in their other 9 outings) and Neshannock to 14 points twice. The Lancers had averaged 43.5 points against all other opponents, including Sto-Rox who they scored 31 against.

Sto-Rox does have a crack in their armor on the defensive side. They gave up 30 points to Western Beaver who was the only team North Catholic shut out this year. The Vikings narrowly escaped Neshannock 34-31, using a goal-line stand at the end of the game to seal the victory. Sto-Rox may have improved since their mid-September game against Neshannock, but one aspect that stood out to me when I watched the game on ROOT was that Neshannock's line was able to push the Vikings around in the trenches. In the semi-finals, the Trojans absolutely dominated the Lancers up front as the line plowed the way for Fulmore's big day. If the Trojans are able to control play at the line of scrimmage and keep the ball out of Lenny Williams' hands, they will have a chance to win their first WPIAL title in school history and make the short trip back up to Troy Hill and ring the bell.
For ages the old bell has sat in the corner of the gym-ecclesia-torium with the promise to the students that walked the halls that it would ring when a Championship was won. During my four years on Troy Hill, the football team reached the semi-finals once (losing to Beaver Falls), they didn't let the band ring it when we won regionals and we never placed in the Top 10 at Nationals. The bell is something that every North Catholic student has always wanted to ring. These young men have a chance to do something that many before them have dreamed about and to accomplish something no football team in the history of North Catholic High School has done. As an alum of North Catholic, I couldn't be more proud of what this team has accomplished already this season. They have already done something that no Trojan team has done in the past, but they are also good enough to take the next step and close out the school on Troy Hill with one last resounding clang.

Ring. The. Bell.

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