Thursday, November 20, 2014

WPIAL Championship Preview

Championship Friday is upon us. Because of the PIAA schedule and Thanksgiving being late this year, the WPIAL Championships are not being played on the day after Thanksgiving as they typically have been. Instead, we get a Friday where some schools did not opt to cancel classes which has led to a #Hookie4Heinz movement on Twitter. Unfortunately, since these games are not being played on Black Friday, it will make the parking situation even more difficult because some of the outlying lots and garages will be filled with people who normally park there to work downtown. To complicate matters for the evening games, it is also Light Up Night and there is a Penguins game at 7:00. On the WPIAL website, their suggestions for parking were the Heinz Field Stadium Lots, other North Shore lots, the Rivers Casino Parking Garage (which is only an option if everyone in the car is over 21) or the downtown lots and garages which are going to be backed all day. If you're planning on going to a game, go early because parking is going to be an issue.

If you're not going to the games, ROOT Sports will be broadcasting the Class A game live at 11:00am and the Quad-A game live at 2:00pm. Due to the Penguins game in the evening, the AA and AAA games will be on tape delay and broadcast at 10:00pm and 12:30am respectively.

If you're going to be stuck at work all day, your best bet is to tune in to the MSA Sports broadcasts of the games, which can be found here. As far as I know, the MSA broadcasts work on iPhone/iPad and Android systems as well.

Twitter will be buzzing with updates tomorrow so make sure to keep an eye on the following hashtags: #WPIAL #MSAscores #Skylights

Additionally, I recommend following: myself (obviously), @MSAsports, @PGVarsityXtra, @TribHSInsider, @mwhiteburgh, @JRown32, @AJWPIAL and @WPIAL_Insider for updates throughout the day.

1. Pine-Richland (12-0) vs 3. Central Catholic (11-1)
2:00 pm

Championship History

Pine-Richland won the WPIAL AAA title in 2003 and lost in the Championship Game in 2002. Richland High School won WPIAL AA titles in 1969 and 1970.

Central Catholic is the defending AAAA Champions, have won 4 WPIAL Championships (2003, 2004, 2007, 2013) and have played in 6 Championship Games.

Playoff History: In their only playoff meeting, Central Catholic beat Pine-Richland in the first round of the 2010 playoffs.

The old adage that "offense wins games but defense wins championships" will be put to the test in the Quad-A Championship. Pine-Richland boasts the top offense in Quad-A, scoring nearly 48 points per game, while Central Catholic has the top defense, holding opponents to just 10.6 points per game. These Northern Eight Conference foes met in Week 8 with Pine-Richland's offense controlling the game en route to a 48-28 victory. The 48 points the Rams scored against Central Catholic was the most that a Vikings defense had allowed in 11 seasons since giving up 49 to Woodland Hills in 2003.

Pine-Richland's offense has been dominant this season, scoring at least 40 points in all but two games. The Rams boast the top passer in the WPIAL in senior QB Ben DiNucci who has thrown for 3,296 yards and 34 touchdowns while completing an absurd 74% of his passes. His favorite targets have been a pair of 1000-yard receivers in Mike Merhaut (1174 yards, 15 TDs) and D'ondre Gastion (1002 yards, 11 TDs). As a mark of how good DiNucci's weapons are, every Ram player who has caught at least 7 passes aside from RB Connor Slomka is averaging at least 14 yards per reception. But don't let his receiving stats fool you, Slomka has been an effective weapon for the Rams offense, rushing for 1214 yards and scoring 32 touchdowns, putting him in the top five in the WPIAL in scoring. Slomka, an Army commit, has played his best football in the playoffs, rushing for 348 yards and scoring 12 times in 3 games. Pine-Richland is also in contention for the Best Student Section in the entire WPIAL, based solely on the fact that they plan on bringing a live ram to the game.

Central Catholic is the defending Quad-A Champions and the only blemish on their resume is their loss to Pine-Richland. The Vikings rode a dominant defense that pitched 5 shutouts this season, including a 28-0 victory over an explosive Woodland Hills team in the quarterfinals. The Vikings got pushed by Penn-Trafford in the semi-finals after Penn-Trafford recovered multiple onside kicks in the first half but ultimately pulled away thanks to a 200-yard performance from John Petrishen and a 100-yard night from Vinny Emanuele. Petrishen has been the driving force of this Central Catholic team all year, playing wide receiver and running back on offense, all over the secondary on defense, and has scored 4 times on kick returns. Central Catholic's offense is built around their running game and the Vikings only average 7 pass attempts per game. Their dominant ground attack has enabled them to control the clock on offense and let their defense slam the door on most teams this season.  Grant Foster, son of former Steeler Barry Foster, leads the team with 729 yards and 16 TDs but has been hampered by an injury lately. Vinny Emanuele has stepped up in the playoffs, rushing for 268 yards and 4 TDs over the last 3 games. In the first meeting, the Vikings faltered when Pine-Richland pulled away in the second half and they were forced out of their comfort zone of running the ball and playing defense.

1. Central Valley (12-0) vs 3. West Allegheny (11-1)

Championship History

Central Valley won the WPIAL title in 2010, the first year of the school's existence after the merger of Center and Monaca school districts. They lost in the Championship Game to West Allegheny last year. Monaca won 3 WPIAL Class A titles (1975, 1982, 1985) and played in 8 Championship Games. Center lost in their only Championship Game appearance in 1988.

West Allegheny has won all 7 WPIAL Championship Games they have played (1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2012, 2013).

Playoff History: West Allegheny beat Central Valley in the WPIAL Championship last year, the only playoff meeting between the two schools.

West Allegheny is the two-time defending AAA Champions but their only losses in the last three seasons have been to Central Valley. In fact, every regular season meeting between these two schools has been won by the home team. West Allegheny also won the only neutral site meeting - last year's WPIAL Championship Game. Between the two schools, they have won four of the last five AAA Championships. These Parkway Conference foes will continue the Championship tradition of the conference, making this the 6th consecutive year a Parkway team has won the AAA crown. Incredibly, this is the 9th straight year that a Parkway Conference team has appeared in the Championship Game.

Since Central Valley came into existence in 2010 with the merger of Center and Monaca and have been one of the dominant programs in AAA ever since. The Warriors have at least made the semifinals every season and this will be their third appearance at Heinz Field. Central Valley is the top seed thanks to their win over West Allegheny in the season finale. The Warriors have dominated the opposition all season and the only team to come within 20 points of them was West Allegheny who they beat by 11. They have been paced on offense by Pitt recruit Jordan Whitehead, who is one of the top defensive backs in the state but also led the team in rushing with 1412 yards. Whitehead has been an all-around playmaker for Central Valley on offense, defense and special teams and leads the team with 27 total touchdowns. Central Valley has been very balanced this season with two quarterbacks combining for over 2000 passing yards. John George started the year under center but was injured in Week 3 and Chris Callaghan took over and threw for 1266 yards and 12 TDs. George returned in Week 7 and has thrown for 879 yards and 11 TDs on the season, with 279 yards and 4 TDs coming in the last two weeks. BJ Powell has been the Warriors primary receiver with 720 yards and 9 TDs and is complemented by Dante Lucci (464 yards, 4 TDs) and Kurt Reinstadler (459 yards, 5 TDs).

West Allegheny made the WPIAL playoffs for the first time in 1993 and the reigns were handed to Bob Palko in 1995. Since then, Palko has become the best big game coach in WPIAL history, becoming the first coach to win 7 WPIAL titles last season when the Indians won their second consecutive title. Palko has never lost a WPIAL Championship Game and is looking for the second three-peat of his career, the first coming from 1999-2001 when his son Tyler was under center. Now, senior QB Andrew Koester can join Tyler Palko as a 3-time WPIAL champion. Koester has been outstanding this season, throwing for 1211 yards and 15 TDs and led a drive in the final minute to bring West Allegheny back to tie Woodland Hills and force overtime in the WPIAL Game of the Year (so far) where the Indians eventually prevailed. As is typical with a West Allegheny team, they have been a dominant rushing team but have don't have a singular feature back. Chayse Dillon leads the team in rushing with 916 yards and 18 TDs but he is not far ahead of Terence Stephens who has run for 837 yards and 17 TDs. Whitney White has added 652 yards and 10 TDs, giving West Allegheny a dangerous three-headed beast on the ground. In the semifinals, the Indians took on Thomas Jefferson and the WPIAL's leading rusher Austin Kemp. Not only did West Allegheny totally dominate the game, jumping out to a 41-0 halftime lead, they dominated TJ on the ground, beating the Jaguars at their own game.

1. South Fayette (12-0) vs 2. Aliquippa (12-0)

Championship History

South Fayette won the WPIAL Class AA title in 2010 and 2013 (beating Aliquippa both times). They won the 1936 Class A Championship Game and were awarded the 1964 Class A title (no championship game was played). They lost in the 1967 Class A Championship Game.

Aliquippa has won 16 WPIAL Championships. They won 8 Class AAA Championships (1952, 1955, 1964, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989) and played in 13 Class AAA Championship Games. After moving down to Class AA in 1990, the Quips have won 8 Class AA Championships (1991, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2008, 2011 and 2012) and played in 12 Class AA Championship Games.

Playoff History: South Fayette is 2-1 against Aliquippa in the playoffs with both wins coming in Championship Games (2010 and 2013).

In another rematch of last year's WPIAL Championship, South Fayette and Aliquippa meet for the third time with a WPIAL title on the line. Aliquippa has lost only two games to WPIAL opponents in the last five seasons - both of them coming against South Fayette at Heinz Field. This is Aliquippa's 7th straight appearance at Heinz Field and the Quips have won more WPIAL titles than any other school. These have been the top two teams in AA all season and have been on a collision course for a rematch after their epic back-and-forth championship game last season. Both teams got scares in their semifinal contests but pulled away in the fourth quarter to force the rematch. These are the top two offenses and defenses in AA with Aliquippa averaging over 50 points per game and South Fayette averaging 46.5 per game. On the defensive side, the Quips were slightly better as well, holding opponents to 11.5 points per game as opposed to South Fayette's 12.6 points per contest.

South Fayette is led by the WPIAL's all-time leading passer Brett Brumbaugh who is second in the WPIAL in passing this season with 2927 yards and 35 TDs. Brumbaugh's favorite targets have been junior WR Nick Ponikvar who has 874 yards and 9 TDs and senior TE Logan Sharp who has 755 yards and 12 TDs. Brumbaugh has spread the ball around this season and has completed at least 10 passes to 6 different players - all of them averaging over 12 yards per reception. The Lions are not solely reliant on Brumbaugh's arm as junior RB Hunter Hays has rushed for 1280 yards and 24 TDs with 350 yards and 6 TDs coming in the postseason. South Fayette breezed through their conference slate and their opening round matchup, posting 40+ points every week and only surrendering 21 points once - to Quaker Valley in the season finale. But the quarterfinals and semifinals brought two scares to the defending state champions who now hold the WPIAL's longest winning streak at 28 games. Both South Park and Seton-La Salle were able to put 21 points on the scoreboard against the Lions but eventually South Fayette was too talented, beating South Park by 18 and Seton-La Salle by 14. Even with those close calls, South Fayette has still scored 35+ in every outing and not allowed more than 21 points to anyone this season.

Most AA schools that graduate 3 players that go on to D1 schools don't run through their schedule and find themselves undefeated and playing for a championship the next year. But this is Aliquippa. The Quips have scored 40+ points in every game this season and the only team to break 20 against them was Washington in the semifinals. The Quips have been so dominant that most of their games have been in the mercy rule by halftime. Aliquippa has a pair of junior running backs that have been unstoppable this season, both carrying the ball 132 times. Kaezon Pugh has racked up 1510 yards and 25 TDs while DiMantae Bronaugh has 1245 yards and 24 TDs. The Quips are not solely reliant on their running game as senior QB Darrien Fields has thrown for 1459 yards and 18 TDs, primarily to 6'3" senior WR Patrick Anderson who leads the team with 404 yards and 9 TDs. The Quips have yet to figure out a Brumbaugh brother in a WPIAL Championship Game, but they have the offensive ability to hang with South Fayette and this has all the makings of another epic AA title game.

2. Clairton (12-0) vs 5. Avonworth (11-1)

Championship History

Clairton has won 10 total WPIAL Championships. They were awarded the Class AAA WPIAL Championship in 1929, 1931 and 1954 (no Championship Games played) and lost AAA Championship Games in 1957 and 1958. Clairton has played in 13 Class A Championship Games and won 7 times (1989, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012).

Avonworth tied Union in the 1959 Class A Championship Game, the only WPIAL title in school history and their only appearance in a Championship Game.

Playoff History: Clairton is 2-0 against Avonworth with wins in the 1982 and 2009 quarterfinals.

In terms of championship pedigree, these two schools are polar opposites. Clairton has been the dominant team in Class A for the last decade, winning 6 of the last 8 Class A titles. After a down year last season where the Bears lost one regular season game "only" made the semifinals (which is a down year by Clairton standards), the Bears have roared back to the forefront of the Class A picture this season. While much of the focus this season was on the potential matchup between Clairton and defending state champion Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, Avonworth flew under the radar and pulled the upset on North Catholic in the semifinals. The Class A semifinal games last week were about as good a pair of games as you will see with Avonworth scoring a touchdown with 4 minutes to play to pull ahead of North Catholic 28-21. The Lopes then got two interceptions in the final four minutes to seal the victory and earn their first trip to a WPIAL title game since 1959. On the other hand, Clairton's offense continued their record pace but were matched almost score-for-score by Neshannock. The Lancers were able to tie the game late and send it to overtime where Clairton scored first then intercepted a pass to secure the victory and prevent Neshannock from reaching their first Championship Game in school history.

Clairton's offense has been absolutely incredible this season. The Bears have always been known for blowing their opponents out of the water, but they have taken it to an entirely new degree this season. Through 12 games the Bears have scored 788 points, an average of 65.7 per game. They are just 72 points shy of tying the state record of 860 points which was set by the 2007 Jeannette team led by Terrelle Pryor - in 16 games. Clairton scored 70+ points in each of their first 5 games but slowed down slightly, averaging just 59 over their last 7 contests. Their 48 points against Neshannock was their lowest output of the season and the 42 points the Lancers scored was the first time anyone scored more than twice against the Bears defense. The Bears have been led by sophomore sensation Lamont Wade, who is ranked as one of the top CB recruits in the nation for the class of 2017. To call Wade "explosive" on offense doesn't even do justice to his playmaking ability - he has led the Bears with 2128 rushing yards and a WPIAL-leading 39 TDs after starting the season as the backup running back before junior Harrison Dreher was injured in Week 4. Dreher returned in the quarterfinals and gives the Bears a vicious 1-2 punch in the backfield as he has run for 679 yards and 16 TDs in only 6 games. Wade was absolutely sensational in the playoffs, rushing for 744 yards and 15 TDs in 3 games, including 267 yards and 6 TDs last week against Neshannock. Clairton can do more than run the ball, as senior QB Ryan Williams has thrown for 2232 yards and 27 scores on the season. His favorite targets have been 6'5" junior Aaron Matthews (598 yards, 12 TDs, 34 2-point conversions) and senior WR James Hines (731 yards, 10 TDs).

Back in August, I went on the record and said that last year Avonworth was the 3rd best Class A team in the state behind State Champion Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic and Old Forge who took CWNC to overtime in the PIAA Championship. The Antelopes overcame more adversity than any other team appearing in a championship game this season, losing player after player to injuries but managed to persevere. Junior QB Zach Chandler was lost in Week 4 after a hot start to the season where he threw for 742 yards. Senior Josh Drwal stepped in and while he doesn't have the same arm talent that Chandler has, is an elusive runner who has helped reinvent the Lopes offense into a read-option attack. The focus of their offensive attack has been 6'2" junior Jamal Hughley who started the season at WR but has also played RB and enters the championship game as the Lopes leading rusher (779 yards), receiver (449 yards) and scorer (17 TDs) despite missing time at the end of the season with an injury he suffered in Week 7 against North Catholic. Hughley was able to get his revenge last week, rushing for 127 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Lopes to their first WPIAL Championship Game since 1959. While no individual's stats will blow you away like with Clairton, don't let the Lopes fool you. They have an excellent offensive and defensive line and are capable of controlling a game on the ground. This will be the best defense that Clairton has seen all season, but their weakness (as displayed in their Week 7 loss to North Catholic) is speed on the perimeter, which is where Clairton excels. Avonworth's hope lies in their defensive line being able to control the game and keep Clairton's rushing attack bottled up. The Lopes defense will need to continue to be opportunistic, especially in the secondary where Josh Drwal and Brandon Wasko recorded interceptions in the closing minutes to seal their semifinal victory over North Catholic.

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