Thursday, November 13, 2014

WPIAL Playoff Preview: Semifinals

One more step. Sixteen teams remain vying for the eight spots at Heinz Field next Friday. Only four teams remain in each classification and at this point the wheat has clearly been separated from the chaff. In all four classifications, the teams making the semifinals were the #1, #2, #3 and #5 seeds. None of this years semifinalists have more than 1 loss and 10 of them are undefeated. Of the 6 teams that are 10-1 on the season, all of them lost to another team that is in the semifinals.  Incredibly, 6 of the 8 teams that played at Heinz Field last season are still alive and all four defending champions (Central Catholic, West Allegheny, South Fayette and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic) are still alive in their quests to defend their titles.

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 8 playoff games over the internet, here is their list of the games they will be broadcasting tonight.

1. Pine-Richland (7-0, 11-0) vs 5. McKeesport (8-1, 10-1)
Location: North Allegheny

Playoff Meetings Since 1980: None
Last Championship Game Appearance: Pine-Richland 2003 (AAA), McKeesport 2005

Pine-Richland continued their run of dominance in the semi-finals, cruising past Altoona 49-7. The Rams got another big performance from the WPIAL's leading passer Ben DiNucci, who threw for 377 yards to put him over 3000 for the season. DiNucci has one of the best receiving tandems in the WPIAL with 1000-yard receiver Mike Merhaut and 900-yard receiver D'ondre Gastion who committed to Duquesne this week. The Rams are much more than an Air Raid offense though as RB Connor Slomka's 100-yard game put him over 1000 for the seasons and his 3 TDs against the Mountain Lions put him at 27 scores on the season, the 5th highest in the WPIAL. The Rams boast the best offense in Quad-A and have not been held under 48 points since the calendar flipped to October. This could present a problem for a run-heavy McKeesport team that averages less than 3 pass attempts per game. McKeesport boasts one of the better defenses in Quad-A and has only allowed two teams to put up more than two scores on them. The Tigers will need to control the clock and keep the Pine-Richland offense off the field with their rushing attack if they want to advance to their first championship game since 2005. They will rely heavily on 1600-yard rusher Khaleke Hudson and bruiser Tymar Sutton who ran for over 600 yards from the fullback position this year but took over under center after TyWann Smith was injured last week against Plum. Sutton carried the Tigers last week, rushing for 150 yards and two scores and will be the key to attacking Pine-Richland's defense.

2. Penn-Trafford (8-0, 11-0) vs 3. Central Catholic (6-1, 10-1)
Location: Norwin

Playoff Meetings Since 1980: 3. Central Catholic is 3-0 and has knocked Penn-Trafford out of the playoffs the last two years.
Last Championship Game Appearance: Penn-Trafford 1997, Central Catholic 2013

For the second straight year, Penn-Trafford and Central Catholic meet with a trip to Heinz Field on the line. The Warriors got all they could handle from North Allegheny last week, mounting a comeback from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Tigers. The Warriors were able to attack North Allegheny through the air with QB Brett Laffoon racking up 280 yards and 5 TDs, 197 of which were to junior WR Timmy Vecchio who also hauled in 3 TDs. Vecchio is nearing 1000 receiving yards on the season and is the second-leading receiver in the WPIAL. However, Central Catholic's defense is loaded with Division 1-caliber talent and the Warriors will need to stay balanced and get a solid game out of 1300-yard rusher Devin Austin to keep Central's defense at bay. The Vikings have been outstanding on the defensive side of the ball this year, culminating with a shutout of an explosive Woodland Hills offense last week (their 5th shutout of the season). Amazingly, the Vikings gave up more points to Pine-Richland (48) than they have given up to their other 10 opponents combined (45). While Central is the best defensive team in Quad-A, their offense remains a weakness. They are built on a rushing attack without a dominant back - Grant Foster (729 yards, 16 TDs), Brian Totten (469 yards, 2 TDs), Vinny Emanuele (453 yards, 6 TDs) and Ronnie Jones (432 yards, 7 TDs) have split the workload this year. Last week, the Vikings beat Woodland Hills 28-0 but only one offensive touchdown was scored as Central scored touchdowns on a punt return, fumble return and interception return. The Vikings have been so good on defense this year that their offense's lack of firepower and lack of a passing game was only exposed once - when Pine-Richland put up 48 points in a shootout and Central could not keep up. If Brett Laffoon and Timmy Vecchio can find holes in Central's defense, they could force the Vikings into the uncomfortable territory of a shootout. However, if Central gets out to an early lead, their defense will be able to control the game and send the Vikings to Heinz Field for the second straight season.


1. Central Valley (8-0, 11-0) vs 5. Ringgold (7-1, 10-1)
Location: Chartiers Valley

Playoff Meetings Since 1980: 2. Central Valley beat Ringgold in the first round in 2010 and the quarterfinals in 2011.
Last Championship Game Appearance: Central Valley 2013, Ringgold 1982

Since Center and Monaca school districts merged in 2010, Central Valley has been to the semi-finals every season. In fact, the Warriors are one of only 3 WPIAL schools (with Aliquippa and Clairton) that have reached the semi-finals in each of the last 5 seasons. The Warriors raced out to an early lead against Indiana in the semifinals and cruised to a 41-14 victory, led by one of the best athletes in the WPIAL, Pitt recruit Jordan Whitehead. Whitehead only played the first half but paced the team with 127 rushing yards and 2 TDs along with a 42-yard receiving touchdown. On the season, Whitehead has nearly 1300 rushing yards and 25 total TDs. Senior QB John George has battled injuries this season but threw for 122 yards and 3 TDs in the quarterfinals. The Warriors seem to be blessed with a never-ending pool of talent as George's replacement - junior Chris Callaghan - has thrown for 1200 yards and 12 TDs this season. Ringgold beat Hampton in overtime in the quarterfinals in the most exciting game of the night when Hampton opted to try for a 2-point conversion and the win in overtime and was stopped short by the Rams defense. Ringgold's winning streak has reached 10 games as the Rams have not lost since their Week 1 shellacking by Thomas Jefferson. This semi-final appearance is the deepest the Rams have gone in the playoffs since 1987 and they are seeking their first championship game appearance in over 30 years. If the Rams are going to continue their winning streak, they will need another outstanding effort from dual-threat QB Nico Law. On the season, Law has accounted for over 2000 yards of total offense - 1200 yards and 15 TDs through the air and 800 yards and 12 TDs on the ground. Leading rusher Chacar Berry was injured in the opening round but was able to suit up last week, though he carried the ball just 11 times for 33 yards, a significant dropoff from his season average of 9 yards per carry.

2. Thomas Jefferson (8-0, 11-0) vs 3. West Allegheny (7-1, 10-1)
Location: Bethel Park

Playoff Meetings Since 1980: 5. West Allegheny is 3-2 and 3-1 in semi-finals meetings.
Last Championship Game Appearance: Thomas Jefferson 2008, West Allegheny 2013

At the beginning of the season, I had a debate with Josh Rowntree of MSA Sports about whether or not West Allegheny had overtaken Thomas Jefferson as the premier AAA program. Now, the two meet in the semi-finals with a spot at Heinz Field on the line. It is hard to argue with the prestige of either of these programs. Thomas Jefferson has a WPIAL-leading 20 straight playoff appearances and has reached the semifinals in 17 of those seasons, including 16 of the last 17. The Jaguars have won 4 WPIAL titles in that time and had a run of 6 straight appearances at Heinz Field from 2003-2008, which was the last time they won a semifinal game. On the other hand, West Allegheny and coach Bob Palko have been unstoppable when a title is on the line, going 7 for 7 in Championship Games since winning their first in 1997. The Indians are the two-time defending WPIAL Champions and have not lost to a WPIAL team other than Central Valley since 2011. Thomas Jefferson boasts the WPIAL's leading rusher in Austin Kemp who is nearing 2000 yards on the season after a 200-yard, 3 touchdown effort against Mars in the quarterfinals. The Jaguars have done pretty much nothing except hand the ball off this season, averaging less than 3 pass attempts per game, and Kemp is the workhorse back though sophomore Quinton Hill has added over 700 yards and 11 TDs as a change-of-pace back. West Allegheny has a very good defense and their blitzing scheme is good enough to confuse most offenses, but the Indians will need to find a way to contain Kemp - something no one has done yet this year. For their part, West A has a dynamic trio of backs in Chayse Dillon (811 yards, 16 TDs), Terence Stephens (753 yards, 15 TDs) and Whitney White (572 yards, 9 TDs). In their quarterfinal victory over Franklin Regional, both Dillon and Stephens had over 100 yards rushing and combined for 5 touchdowns. If anyone is going to put the ball in the air in this game, it will be West Allegheny as senior QB Andrew Koester has thrown for over 1200 yards and 15 TDs this season.

1. South Fayette (10-0, 11-0) vs 5. Seton-La Salle (8-1, 10-1)
Location: Peters Township

Playoff Meetings Since 1980: 2. South Fayette beat Seton-La Salle in the quarterfinals last year and Seton beat South Fayette in the quarterfinals in 2011.
Last Championship Game Appearance: South Fayette 2013, Seton-La Salle 2004

This will be the second meeting this season between South Fayette and Seton-La Salle as the Century Conference foes met in Week 8 amid eligibility controversy. Seton-La Salle was forced to play without playmaker Danzel McKinley-Lewis after he was flagged twice for unsportsmanlike conduct (both questionable calls) the week prior and South Fayette rolled to a 41-14 victory. McKinley-Lewis, the Rebels leading receiver, second leading rusher, and leading scorer will be suiting up for this semifinal showdown. McKinley-Lewis led the Rebels to a hard-fought 28-21 victory over Highlands in the quarterfinals, scoring a receiving and a rushing touchdown, the later of which broke a 21-21 tie in the fourth quarter. Seton-La Salle QB Tyler Perone threw for 188 yards, putting him over 2000 on the season. South Fayette, who had been so dominant all season, showed some cracks in the armor against South Park in the quarterfinals. South Park led by 1 at halftime and stretched their lead to 21-13 before the WPIAL's all-time leading passer Brett Brumbaugh led his team on a 26-point barrage in the second half. Brumbaugh threw touchdown passes of 40, 26, and 45 yards on three consecutive drives to put the Lions back in control of the game. Brumbaugh is the second-leading passer in the WPIAL this season and has thrown for almost 2700 yards and 33 TDs. His primary targets have been 800-yard receiver Nick Ponikvar (who scored twice against South Park) and 600-yard receiver Logan Sharp. This game features two balanced offensive attacks as both teams have a 2000-yard passer and a 1000-yard rusher. For South Fayette, that is Hunter Hays who has run for 1153 yards and found the end zone 22 times. Ricky Mellick has paced the Rebels with 1102 rushing yards and 11 scores. This is the fourth semi-final appearance for South Fayette in the last 5 seasons and they are carrying a WPIAL-leading 27-game winning streak into this contest.

2. Aliquippa (8-0, 11-0) vs 3. Washington (8-0, 11-0)
Location: West Allegheny

Playoff Meetings Since 1980: 8. Washington is 5-3 against the Quips but Aliquippa knocked the Prexies out in the 2011 quarterfinals and 2012 Championship Game.
Last Championship Game Appearance: Aliquippa 2013, Washington 2012

Aliquippa has absolutely dominated the competition this season, much like they seem to do every season. The Quips just reloaded after losing 3 players to D1 schools last year and haven't had a game within 30 points this season. The Quips have put up 40+ points in every game and only Kittanning has scored more than 15 against their defense. Last week, the Quips beat Mt Pleasant for the second time this season, riding a 180-yard, 5 touchdown game from RB Kaezon Pugh. Both Pugh and backfield made DiMante Bronaugh have rushed for over 1200 yards this season. Pugh has found the end zone 21 times and Bronaugh 24. Not to be outdone by his backs, QB Darrien Fields has nearly 1300 yards passing and 18 TDs. The Quips are dynamic on offense and stifling on defense and seem to have all the pieces in place to make it to Heinz Field for the 7th straight year. Standing in their way is their biggest playoff nemesis, the team that has beaten them more in the postseason than any other school - the Washington Little Prexies. The Prexies are back in the semifinals for the second time in three seasons and have a balanced offensive attack between 1200-yard passer Jonathan Spina and 1300-yard rusher Malik Wells. The Prexies also have a big play receiver in DeQuay Isbell who leads the team in scoring with 19 total touchdowns and is averaging over 20 yards a play every time he touches the ball. The Prexies won a shootout against an offensively talented Apollo-Ridge team last week but the Quips might be too much on both offense and defense. The Prexies have shown some holes in their armor, needing late touchdowns to beat rival Waynesburg in Week 3, Mt Pleasant in Week 5 and McGuffey for the conference title in Week 9.

1. Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic (7-0, 11-0) vs 5. Avonworth (6-1, 10-1)
Location: Mars

Playoff Meetings Since 1980: 3. Avonworth is 2-1 against North Catholic.
Last Championship Game Appearance: Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic 2013, Avonworth 1959.

The Defending State Champions meet conference rival Avonworth in the playoffs for the fourth time in the last seven years. The Trojans beat Avonworth in the quarterfinals last year and again in the regular season this year. North Catholic got a bit of a scare last week as they trailed South Side Beaver for much of the first half and were only up 7-6 at halftime on a PJ Fulmore touchdown. Fulmore added two more scores in the second half and the Trojans moved on to their third consecutive semifinals appearance. In their regular season meeting, the teams were scoreless at halftime before an explosion of offense in the second half ran the Trojans to a 28-0 victory that could have been 35-0 if a 100-yard pick-6 wasn't called back for a trip behind the play. The Trojans have been outstanding on offense this season, led by 1300-yard rusher and leading receiver PJ Fulmore, a Duquesne commit. Jerome Turner has added over 1000 yards and 22 TDs while sophomore sensation Mario Latronica has been a change-of-pace back and rushed for over 700. Turner was injured in the opening round of the playoffs and missed last week's game against South Side Beaver, which gave Latronica a chance to shine as a complement to Fulmore. If Latronica adds 260 more rushing yards this season, the Trojans will be the first team since the 2007 Serra Catholic squad to have 3 players rush for over 1000 yards. This would be quite an impressive feat, considering QB Adam Sharlow has also thrown for over 900 yards and 9 TDs this season. Avonworth is in the semifinals for the third time in the last 7 seasons and have not been to a championship game since winning the WPIAL title in 1959. The Lopes have survived a number of injuries to key players this season, including to their starting quarterback. Josh Drwal has taken over under center and accounted for almost 1000 yards of total offense, though he is more of a threat on the ground running the read-option than through the air. Jamal Hughley was the Lopes leading rusher and receiver, providing over 1000 yards of total offense and 15 TDs. The Lopes have a very good group of linemen and were able to stifle North Catholic's interior running game in their first meeting. The biggest problem for Avonworth was that the Lopes offense just couldn't move the ball against the Trojans defense.

2. Clairton (8-0, 11-0) vs 3. Neshannock (7-0, 11-0)
Location: Canon-McMillan

Playoff Meetings Since 1980: 1. Clairton beat Neshannock in the 2012 semifinals.
Last Championship Game Appearance: Clairton 2012, Neshannock has never been to a WPIAL Championship Game

The record grows closer. After smoking Shenango 68-7 last week, Clairton has tallied 740 points through 11 games. The state record is 860 points, set by the 2007 Jeannette team led by Terrelle Pryor. At their current pace of 67 points per game, Clairton would pass Jeannette's 16-game record next week in their 12th outing. But first, the Bears need to get past a Neshannock team that also has a high-scoring offense (though not nearly the record-breaking kind the Bears do). Clairton has been paced by 1800-yard rusher Lamont Wade who has scored an incredible 33 touchdowns this season. Bears QB Ryan Williams has the benefit of game-breaking players at every offensive skill position and has thrown for over 2000 yards and 26 TDs this season. In the quarterfinals against Shenango, Williams threw for 221 yards and  2 TDs on just 7 completions. While the Bears offense has set a record pace, their defense is almost as good, pitching 6 shutouts and has held opponents to under 4 points per game. Neshannock has also dominated their opponents this season. Their 14-point victory over Jeannette in the quarterfinals was the first time they had a game closer than 27 points all season. The Lancers have only been held under 40 points once this season and had not given up more than 20 before Jeannette put up 32 on them last week. Neshannock has a balanced offensive attack with 1000-yard rusher Eli Owens and 1600-yard passer Frank Antuono. The Lancers have been good on defense but probably aren't good enough to stop Clairton's offensive attack which means they will need to be able to score with the Bears and hope to topple Clairton in a shootout, which is a tall task against the Clairton defense. Both of these teams have been here before as Clairton is appearing in their 9th straight semifinals and Neshannock in their 3rd straight. However, Clairton is looking to reach Heinz Field for the 7th time in those 9 seasons while Neshannock has never played in a Championship Game.

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