Wednesday, October 29, 2014

WPIAL Playoff Preview: Round 1

The playoffs are here. On Halloween night, 32 games will kick off simultaneously at 7:30 as the Highway to Heinz begins. All four defending champions reached the postseason once again and the two defending state champions - South Fayette and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic - are the top seeds in their respective classifications. MSA Sports will have broadcasts of all 32 games, available here. I have a spreadsheet with WPIAL playoff results for every year since 1980, so I also included some notes on playoff history between these schools.

If you're going to be at home tonight, keep an eye on the following hashtags on Twitter to follow along as people post score updates from games: #WPIAL #MSAscores #Skylights

Also, if you're not already, follow the @MSAsports @PGVarsityXtra and @TribHSInsider twitter accounts which will post score updates and bookmark the MSA Scoreboard for quick reference at the end of the night. They get the final scores up faster than anyone. Also, MSA Sports will be broadcasting all 32 playoff games over the internet, here is their list of the games they will be broadcasting tonight.


1. Pine-Richland (7-0, 9-0) vs 16. Connellsville (3-5, 3-6)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
This game has the recipe for disaster. Pine-Richland with the WPIAL's leading passer Ben DiNucci and workhorse back Connor Slomka (734 yards, 20 TDs) are the highest scoring team in Quad-A. On the other side, Connellsville has given up more points (31.2 per game) than any team in the AAAA playoffs and the second-most of any WPIAL playoff team. Connellsville is not a good offensive team and has the lowest-scoring offense (15.3 points per game) of any WPIAL playoff team and is the only playoff team to not win 4 games.

8. Altoona (6-2, 7-2) vs 9. Bethel Park (5-2, 9-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
The Mountain Lions rode 1100-yard rusher Eli Mencer to a home playoff game, which makes for a rough trip for the Bethel Park faithful. Altoona ended the season on a 5-game winning streak but will face a tough test in a Bethel Park team that beat Penn Hills and only lost by 2 to Woodland Hills. The Blackhawks have a balanced attack with 1000-yard passer Levi Metheny and 1000-yard rusher Alex Minton.

4. Penn Hills (6-1, 7-2) vs 13. Plum (5-3, 5-4)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 1. Plum beat Penn Hills in the 1996 Quarterfinals.
Penn Hills won the Southeastern Conference with a Week 9 win over rival Woodland Hills. The Indians feature a backfield tandem of QB Billy Kisner and RB Te'Shan Campbell that are both nearing 1000 yards on the ground. Plum rode a strong defense into the playoffs. The Mustangs did not allow more than 20 points in any game this season. Three touchdowns is the magic number for Plum - they are 5-0 when scoring more than 21 points this year and 0-4 when scoring under 21.

5. McKeesport (7-1, 8-1) vs 12. Mt Lebanon (4-3, 5-4)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 3. McKeesport is 2-1.
This game will be a contrast of styles. McKeesport's entire offense is based around running the ball - the Tigers are averaging less than 3 pass attempts per game. They boast a 1200-yard rusher in Khaleke Hudson. On the other side, Mt Lebanon's offense is based around their passing game and dual-threat QB Eddie Jenkins who has accounted for over 1500 yards of total offense and 20 TDs. The Blue Devils have struggled on defense all season and McKeesport presents a similar ground-and-pound attack to how Penn Hills gashed Mt Lebanon.

2. Penn-Trafford (8-0, 9-0) vs 15. Fox Chapel (3-4, 4-5)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 1. Penn-Trafford beat Fox Chapel in the 1997 Semifinals.
Penn-Trafford enters the playoffs with the best defense in Quad-A (7.7 points against per game) while Fox Chapel has the 3rd lowest scoring offense of any Quad-A playoff team (21.7 points per game). On offense, Penn-Trafford is very balanced with an 1100-yard passer in Brett Laffoon and a 1000-yard rusher in Devin Austin. This game could turn into an aerial battle between Laffoon and Fox Chapel QB Billy Urso who has over 1400 yards this season but has thrown 13 INTs to 11 TDs.

7. North Allegheny (5-2, 7-2) vs 10. Upper St Clair (4-3, 4-5)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 5. Upper St Clair is 4-1 against North Allegheny but the one loss was in the 2011 Championship Game.
How far we have come since the Week 4 meeting between these teams where both entered at 1-2 and the loser fell to 1-3. North Allegheny's win sparked a 6-game winning streak while Upper St Clair enters the playoffs having won 3 of their last 4. The bigger story here is yet another playoff matchup between Art Walker and Jim Render. This will be their 6th playoff meeting in the last 12 years and Walker is currently ahead 3-2. The Tigers are a good team that took Pine-Richland to overtime and lost on a miracle 4th down pass. Render's Panthers have been inconsistent this year, scoring 28+ in all of their wins but failing to score more than 17 in any of their losses.

3. Central Catholic (6-1, 8-1) vs 14. Norwin (4-4, 5-4)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None.
Central Catholic has one of the best defenses in the WPIAL, pitching 4 shutouts this year. Their numbers are slightly skewed by the 48 points they gave up to Pine-Richland, which was 10 more points than they gave up in their other 8 games combined. Norwin has been stout on defense this year, but the Knights have the second-lowest scoring offense of any Quad-A playoff team.

6. Woodland Hills (6-1, 7-2) vs 11. North Hills (4-3, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 5. Woodland Hills is 4-1 and have won the last 4 meetings.
This will be the 5th playoff meeting between these two schools since 1993 and the 3rd in the last 5 years. The Wolverines are loaded with D1 prospects again this season. QB Jeremiah Jones is a West Virginia recruit and RB Miles Sanders is a Penn State recruit while WR Art Thompkins is a Toledo commit. The Wolverine offense has scored at least 25 points against everyone except Penn Hills this year while North Hills has only scored over 24 points in 3 games. North Hills has been much better in close, low-scoring games this year, going 3-1 in games decided by 10 points or less while Woody High is just 1-2 in games decided by 10 or less.


1. Central Valley (8-0, 9-0) vs 16. Laurel Highlands (4-4, 4-5)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 1. Central Valley beat Laurel Highlands in the first round in 2011, which was the last time Laurel Highlands was in the playoffs.
The Warriors are the top seed in AAA after beating West Allegheny in a Parkway Conference showdown in the last week of the season. Central Valley has been one of the most dominant teams in AAA since the school came into existence: winning the 2010 title, reaching Heinz Field last year and making the semi-finals in the other two seasons. Central Valley has one of the best players in Western Pennsylvania in RB/CB Jordan Whitehead who leads the team in rushing and has found the end zone 18 times. Laurel Highlands has not won a playoff game since 1980 and have given up more points than any other team in the WPIAL playoffs (39.1 per game).

8. Indiana (5-3, 6-3) vs 9. West Mifflin (5-3, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None.
This game is a sharp contrast of styles between Indiana's passing attack and West Mifflin's ground game. The Little Indians rode the 1500-yard / 21 TD arm of Jacob Zilinskas to a third place finish in the GAC after beating Hollidaysburg in a casket match in the season finale. On the other side, Titans RB DiAngelo Mitchell ran for nearly 1600 yards and 24 TDs.

4. Hampton (7-1, 8-1) vs 13. New Castle (4-4, 4-5)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 1. Hampton beat New Castle in the first round in 2001.
Unfortunately, this is a football game in the fall of 2014 and not another rematch of their spring 2014 basketball teams. In their meetings on the hardcourt, New Castle dealt Hampton 4 of their 5 losses in the 2013-14 season, including in the WPIAL Championship and PIAA quarterfinals. In football, Hampton won the Greater Allegheny Conference on the back of dual-threat QB Nick Grabowski who accounted for over 1000 yards of total offense and 18 total TDs. New Castle won 4 of their last 5 after starting the season 0-4 to make the playoffs and finish 4th in the Parkway Conference thanks to a head-to-head win over Moon.

5. Ringgold (7-1, 8-1) vs 12. Gateway (4-4, 4-5)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 1. Gateway beat Ringgold in the first round in 2003 when both played in Quad-A.
Ringgold got run off the field by Thomas Jefferson in the season opener but hasn't lost since. Their offense has been one of the best in AAA with QB Nico Law throwing for 1064 yards and 14 TDs and running for 615 yards and 9 TDs. His backfield partner RB Chacar Berry has 1245 rushing yards and 22 TDs. On the other side, Gateway overcame a slow start to get former Clairton coach Tom Nola back in the playoffs in the Gators first year in AAA. Gateway struggled on offense all season, averaging just 18.4 points per game.

2. Thomas Jefferson (8-0, 9-0) vs 15. Moon (4-4, 4-5)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 3. Thomas Jefferson is 3-0.
Thomas Jefferson enters the playoffs with the WPIAL's leading rusher in Austin Kemp. The Jaguars did what they always do - totally dominated their conference competition. TJ enters the playoffs with a WPIAL-leading streak of 20 consecutive postseason appearances and have reached at least the semifinals in 15 of the last 16 years. While TJ's offense is based on their rushing attack, Moon's offense relies solely on dual-threat QB Alaksei Yaramus who accounted for over 1300 yards of total offense and was the Tigers leading passer and rusher.

7. Montour (5-2, 7-2) vs 10. Mars (5-3, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 1. Montour beat Mars in the 2010 semi-finals.
This will be the ROOT Sports Game of the Week. Montour emerged as the 3rd best team in the Parkway Conference and could be a dangerous playoff team as they gave West Allegheny a run for their money in Week 5. The Spartans have a balanced attack with 1100-yard passer Randall Labrie and 1000-yard rusher David Haseleu. On the other side, Mars' offense has traditionally relied solely on their ground game but QB Jake Rosswog has thrown for 966 yards and 10 TDs this season. Ori Rinaman stepped in when Josh Schultheis was injured in Week 1 and ran for 1000 yards and 17 TDs.

3. West Allegheny (7-1, 8-1) vs 14. Knoch (4-4, 4-5)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 3. West Allegheny is 2-1. All 3 meetings have been in Round 1.
The Indians are the two-time defending AAA Champions and I think most people expect to see them at Heinz Field in four weeks. West Allegheny is loaded with talent and championship experience and has a victory in the WPIAL Game of the Year (possibly game of the decade) where West A beat Woodland Hills in overtime. The Indians lost to Central Valley in Week 9, their first loss to a WPIAL opponent in 2 years. Knoch made the playoffs thanks to earning the "Wild Card" in AAA for being the best 6th place team. They do have wins over Franklin Regional and Mars but they have the lowest-scoring offense of any AAA playoff team at just 17.3 points per game.

6. Franklin Regional (6-2, 6-3) vs 11. Belle Vernon (5-3, 5-4)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 2. The teams have split their playoff meetings.
On paper, these are two evenly matched teams that have balanced offensive attacks and solid defenses. Franklin Regional is led by QB Santino Birty (892 yards, 5 TDs) and RB Brett Zanotto (844 yards, 14 TDs). No one (including Thomas Jefferson) has scored more than 28 points on Franklin Regional all year and the Panthers are 6-0 when holding their opponents to less than 21 points. Belle Vernon enters the playoffs on a 3-game winning streak after losing 3 in a row by 7, 7, and 4 points. The Leopards are paced by their two feature backs Anthony Levis (766 yards, 11 TDs) and Luke Durigon (562 yards, 4 TDs).


1. South Fayette (9-0, 9-0) vs 16. Waynesburg (5-3, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
The defending AA state champions ran the table in the Century Conference and boast the WPIAL's all-time leading passer in Brett Brumbaugh who has thrown for 2104 yards and 26 TDs this season. His top two targets have been Logan Sharp (611 yards, 10 TDs) and Nick Ponikvar (576 yards, 6 TDs). The Lions have been balanced on offense as RB Hunter Hays has contributed 935 yards and 18 TDs. Waynesburg is in the playoffs for the first time since 2003 thanks to workhorse back Hunter Cenname's 1471 yards and 20 TDs. Waynesburg is not a team to take lightly as they had two close losses to Washington and Mt Pleasant, the top teams in their conference.

8. Beaver (6-2, 7-2) vs 9. South Park (7-2, 7-2)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
Beaver got the last home playoff spot by virtue of winning a 3-way tie for 2nd place in the Midwestern Conference. Beaver's pass-heavy offense carried them to the semi-finals last season and this game has the makings of a shootout with 1100-yard passer Zach Royba leading a Bobcats offense that averages 38 points per game. South Park's offense flows through dual-threat QB Nick Scholle who has over 1200 yards of total offense and 21 total TDs this season, leading the team in passing, rushing and scoring.

4. Highlands (9-0, 9-0) vs 13. New Brighton (6-2, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
Hold on to your hats. Both of these teams are in the top 10 in AA in scoring offense and feature explosive playmakers. Highlands won the Allegheny Conference on the legs of Elijah Jackson (1466 yards, 19 TDs) who is a threat to find the end zone any time he touches the ball. Brayden Thimons has excelled at QB since being installed in Week 2, throwing for 654 yards, 10 TDs and no interceptions. On the other side, New Brighton has a workhorse back in Scott Florence (1230 yards, 22 TDs) and a dual-threat QB in Payton Fath (971 passing yards, 6 pass TDs, 614 rushing yards, 8 rushing TDs).

5. Seton-La Salle (8-1, 8-1) vs 12. McGuffey (6-2, 7-2)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
Seton-La Salle put out a lot of preseason talk about winning the state championship, but their quest for 16-0 was derailed by the defending state champion South Fayette Lions and the WPIAL officials. Seton's best player, Danzel McKinley-Lewis was suspended for the South Fayette game because of an arcane WPIAL "red card" rule that knocks a player out of the next game if they get two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The Rebels have one of the best passing attacks in AA with QB Tyler Perone throwing for 1658 yards and 21 TDs. McGuffey also has an explosive offense that has put up a ton of yards and points this year with QB Nate Whipkey throwing for 1179 yards and 10 TDs and RB James Duchi running for 1251 yards and 23 TDs. The Highlanders are averaging nearly 39 points per game and have the offensive firepower to give Seton-La Salle a game.

2. Aliquippa (8-0. 9-0) vs 15. Kittanning (6-3, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
Most schools that graduate 3 D1 prospects would expect to have a rebuilding year. Not so for Aliquippa. The Quips are absolutely loaded again this year with senior WR Patrick Anderson, senior DT Arrington Gipson and junior RB/LB Kaezon Pugh. The Quips dominated the competition with the best offense and best defense in AA, averaging over 51 points per game and giving up barely 10. QB Darrien Fields threw for 1189 yards and 17 TDs while the RB tandem of DiMante Bronaugh (1031 yards, 22 TDs) and Kaezon Pugh (824 yards, 12 TDs) was unstoppable. This will likely be the last time the Kittanning Wildcats take the field as the school is merging with Ford City next year. The Wildcats have not won a playoff game since 1980. They boast an explosive offense with QB Braydon Toy throwing for 1738 yards and 22 TDs and adding 882 yards and 7 TDs on the ground. They have a D1 prospect of their own in TE/WR Nick Bowers (498 yards, 10 TDs) and boast a capable running back in Zane Dudek (930 yards, 19 TDs). However, Kittanning struggled on defense this season and they have not faced a defense as good as the Quips. This appears to be the swan song for Kittanning football.

7. Mt Pleasant (7-1, 7-2) vs 10. Shady Side Academy (6-3, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
Mt Pleasant ran their way to the playoffs with a backfield that featured 4 players who ran for more than 300 yards. Jake Adamrovich was their workhorse back who got the most carries (81 carries, 541 yards, 5 TDs) but it was Trevor Salopek who made the most noise, averaging 17.3 yards per carry and gaining 866 yards and 16 TDs on 50 carries. Shady Side Academy is also a ground-and-pound team with a strong backfield tandem. Louis Berry ran for 1221 yards and 19 TDs while Jackson Fitzgerald added 852 yards and 11 TDs. This might be the fastest WPIAL playoff game as both teams are averaging less than 10 pass attempts per game.

3. Washington (8-0, 9-0) vs 14. Steel Valley (6-3, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 1. Washington beat Steel Valley in the quarterfinals in 2000.
As odd as it sounds, this undefeated Washington squad is getting somewhat overlooked heading into the playoffs. The Little Prexies dominated the Interstate Conference and have the fourth best offense and defense in AA. The Prexies have a balanced offensive attack with a 1000-yard rusher in Malik Wells, a 1000-yard passer in Jonathan Spina and a big-play receiver in DeQuay Isbell who has 525 yards and 16 TDs this year. Steel Valley has one of the best underclassmen in the WPIAL in sophomore RB DeWayne Murray who leads the team in rushing (1255 yards), receiving (351 yards) and scoring (24 total TDs).

6. Apollo-Ridge (8-1, 8-1) vs 11. Beaver Falls (6-2, 7-2)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
How about this Apollo-Ridge team. Not much was expected from them as they made the jump up from Class A to AA this year and all they did was come within 30 seconds of an undefeated season. Pitt recruit Tre Tipton and sophomore RB Duane Brown have become the most dangerous backfield in the WPIAL. Tipton has 467 passing yards, 297 receiving yards, 821 rushing yards and 19 total TDs while Brown has 688 passing yards, 117 receiving yards, 1128 rushing yards and 39 total TDs. Beaver Falls has to be thrilled that they are not on the same half of the bracket as South Fayette, the team that has knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last 4 seasons. The Tigers are primarily a running team and boast a 1000-yard rusher in Cordell Cummings but are coming off a throttling by archrival Aliquippa in the season finale.


1. Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic (7-0, 9-0) vs 16. Avella (4-4, 5-4)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
The two best storylines from 2013 converge in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic not only made their first trip in school history to a WPIAL Championship Game, but beat the vaunted Sto-Rox team with Lenny Williams at quarterback and went on to win the State Title. Avella made the playoffs for the first time since 1976 last year, and won their last two games this year to make it back for the second straight year. The Defending State Champs are loaded with talented players on both sides of the ball, starting with their backfield tandem of Jerome Turner (1005 yards, 22 TDs) and PJ Fulmore (1110 rush yards, 216 receiving yards, 18 total TDs) who is basically the second coming of Darren Sproles. Sophomore back Mario Latronica (540 yards, 8 TDs) has been a change-of-pace back and QB Adam Sharlow has thrown for 778 yards and 7 TDs.

8. Frazier (7-1, 8-1) vs 9. South Side Beaver (5-2, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
Frazier finished second in the Tri-County South after losing to Beth-Center by just 9 points in Week 6. Beth-Center was the only team to score more than 14 points against Frazier this season. The Commodores were led by Alvin Ross' 974 rushing yards and 12 TDs while QB Hunter Patterson threw for 873 yards and 13 TDs and ran for 12 more. South Side Beaver entered the season with one of the longest losing streaks in the WPIAL but has made the playoffs for the first time since 2009 thanks to a 1400-yard season from RB Nate Block.

4. Beth-Center (8-0, 9-0) vs 13. Riverside (4-3, 5-4)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
Has the Tri-County South finally gotten some respect? Conference champion Beth-Center was seeded in the top 4 along with the other Class A Conference Champions. The Bulldogs are the TCS' best hope for their first playoff win since 2010 and they did beat GCC earlier this year. These teams are polar opposites on offense as Beth-Center relies almost exclusively on RBs Anthony Welsh (1426 yards, 28 TDs) and Nico Brown (910 yards, 17 TDs). On the other side, Riverside features a pass-heavy attack led by QB Jason Dambach who threw for 1857 yards and 14 TDs, primarily to Logan Sheridan who had 726 receiving yards, 119 rushing yards and 12 total TDs. The Panthers did play Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic close for a half before being blown out in the second half.

5. Avonworth (6-1, 8-1) vs 12. Mapletown (6-2, 7-2)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
I don't think there is a team in the playoffs that has seen more injuries this season than Avonworth. The Lopes entered the season with high expectations after they were arguably the 3rd best team in the state last year. Unfortunately, QB Zach Chandler was injured in Week 3 and the Lopes suffered a slew of other injuries. Josh Drwal stepped in at QB but he is more of a running threat than a passing threat and Avonworth's offense has been somewhat limited. Their primary focus is getting the ball into the hands of 6'2" junior WR Jamal Hughley who led the team with 534 rushing yards, 382 receiving yards and 15 TDs. Mapletown is in the playoffs for the first year since 2005 thanks to a two-headed rushing attack that features Dylan Rush (974 yards, 17 TDs) and Adam Hein (799 yards, 14 TDs). The Maples will have a tough test against the Lopes defense which has one of the best defensive lines in Class A.

2. Clairton (8-0, 9-0) vs 15. Chartiers-Houston (4-3, 5-4)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 3. Clairton is 2-1.
Former Black Hills Conference foes meet in the playoffs. This has all the makings of a mercy rule game as Clairton's offense has been on an historic pace this season, scoring a record 610 points in 9 regular season games. The Bears have scored at least 54 in every game and only been held under 60 twice. They also have the best scoring defense in the WPIAL, giving up just 3.7 points per game and pitching 6 shutouts. Clairton is loaded with D1-caliber talent in RB/CB Lamont Wade (1384 yards, 24 TDs), QB Ryan Williams (1635 yards, 23 TDs) and WRs Aaron Matthews and James Hines. On the other side, Chartiers-Houston has been offensively challenged this year. The Bucs have only broken 27 points once this season - in their casket match against Fort Cherry. Char-Houston leans on their passing game and 900-yard passer Alec Ferrari, but he could be in for a long night against a fantastic Clairton secondary.

7. Shenango (6-1, 6-3) vs 10. Springdale (5-3, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
Shenango is in the playoffs for the first time since moving down to Class A. The Wildcats put together a 4-game winning streak in the second half of the season where they won every game by at least two touchdowns. Shenango is 6-0 when holding opponents to under 23 points but 0-3 against teams that score more than 23. Springdale got off to a slow start but turned it on once the calendar flipped to October, winning their last 4 games including two 14-12 wins over Monessen and GCC that lifted them into the playoffs.

3. Neshannock (7-0, 9-0) vs 14. GCC (5-3, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: None
All of the talk in Class A this season has been about North Catholic and Clairton. Meanwhile, Neshannock has had yet another very good season, running the table in the Big Seven Conference. The Lancers have dominated in all phases of offensive football, averaging 47.7 points per game. QB Frank Antuono has thrown for 1341 yards and 15 TDs, spreading the ball around to 4 different receivers that all have over 200 yards. RB Eli Owens has rushed for 776 yards and 7 TDs. GCC was a bit of a disappointment this year, their first year in Class A. After squeaking past Monessen in Week 1, the Centurions dropped back-to-back games. GCC closed their season with losses to Springdale and Jeannette, dropping them to 4th in the conference.

6. Jeannette (7-1, 8-1) vs 11. Brentwood (5-2, 6-3)
Playoff Meetings since 1980: 1. Jeannette beat Brentwood in the semi-finals of the AA playoffs in 2006.
When the brackets were revealed, I was a bit surprised that Jeannette was seeded 6th in Class A. The Jayhawks averaged 45.8 points per game and dominated everyone they played not named Clairton. Jeannette scored 40+ points in 7 of their 8 wins and didn't give up more than 22 to anyone except Clairton. Dual-threat QB Julian Batts led the Jayhawks in passing (678 yards, 12 TDs) and rushing (591 yards, 9 TDs). Brentwood's offensive focus is also on their QB, but Connor McWilliams (1438 yards, 16 TDs) is more of a traditional pocket passer. The Spartans also have an 1100-yard rusher in Pat Carr. Brentwood has put up a ton of yards but has struggled to put points on the board, averaging a pedestrian 25.7 points per game, which ranks 12th out of the 16 Class A playoff teams.

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