I always look forward to the WPIAL Football Playoffs, and even more so now that we know half the teams that are going to participate this season. And, as always, I have opinions on a number of them. Which favorite in Class AA is in the most trouble? What is North Allegheny’s position in the WPIAL championship chase? What makes Mike Zmijanac, who picked up a historic win last week, such a good coach? These are a few of the questions I’m trying to answer. Here are my “Quick Outs” for Week 7 of the 2010 regular season:
*The Greater Allegheny Conference title will come down to Knoch versus Mars in Week 9, though the probability that the WPIAL champion in Class AAA will come from that section is not a great one. But which team has the best shot to at least make a run? The Knights made my decision a tough one given the way Andrew Rumberg-Goodlin shredded the Kittanning defense with 250 yards and five touchdowns in succession in a Week 7 blowout. Plus, the Knights possess the top scoring offense in the classification with 310 points. As we saw at Heinz Field last fall, it all comes down to consistent running and equally consistent defense. Knoch is also No. 1 in points allowed in Triple-A, but Mars is right behind them, and it can run the ball more effectively. Austin Miele is one of the top ten rushers in Triple-A, needing just 12 more yards for 1,000, and Seth Geyer is capable of spelling him over the course of a game. The Mars defense has also faced tougher out-of-conference opponents, losing to Moon from the Parkway Conference in Week 1, a loss that the Planets seemed to learn a lot from when they upended Quad-A Pine-Richland in Week 2 and Quad-A Butler last Friday.
*Every year is supposed to be “the year” for some team in the Big Eight Conference, usually either Chartiers Valley or Trinity. And ever year the cream rises to the top, the cream, of course, being Thomas Jefferson. The reason the Jaguars win championships on a regular basis is because they have what the other programs in that conference don’t: depth. Chris Saluga has done a terrific job at Chartiers Valley, but let’s face it, the Colts were dependent on one man, Wayne Capers, and after two season-ending injuries, they were reduced to just a middle-of-the-road Triple-A team on both occasions. Ed Dalton is no dummy either, and some talented kids have come in and out of Trinity’s program over the last decade, even some with Division I skills. But neither has had the kind of talent at every position and tier of the football program that TJ does. Kids like T.J. Mastracia, Ryan Ruffing (pictured above), and Dom Presto are able to step in and never miss a beat, even though their cumulative stats don’t always scream loudly, because each of them is developed intelligently by Bill Cherpak and his staff. If TJ doesn’t take back the crown at Heinz Field, it won’t be because they aren’t good enough. It’ll be because their opponent played as close to a perfect game as one can.
*Not only was the Aliquippa-Beaver contest that put the Midwestern Conference title in Aliquippa’s hands one of the best games of the night, it was one of the best coached games of Week 7, on both sides. Give Jeff Beltz and his staff credit for really making the Quips work for this one, but give even more credit to Mike Zmijanac, who earned his 142nd career win in this game to tie previous head coach and mentor Don Yannessa as the most successful coach in Aliquippa football history. Zmijanac still looks up to the man for whom he served as an assistant, and after the game he shrugged off any and all praise, but I don’t think Zmijanac should be so modest. He called for freshman Dravon Henry to carry the ball on what proved to be the game-winning play in OT. In a big spot, with the conference title on the line, it takes guts for a coach to put the game in the hands of a freshman, especially with all the more experienced talent the Quips have on offense. When Zmijanac talked to the P-G’s Mike White afterwards, he acted like he knew all along Henry would score. His mastery of his team and Henry’s heroics as just a freshman lead me to believe the Quips, who have won more WPIAL Class AA championships than any other, will win several more as long as he’s around.
*There are five undefeated teams remaining in Class AA: South Fayette, Seton-LaSalle, Ford City, Greensburg C.C., and the aforementioned Quips. Of those five, I think the Centurions have the most to prove. As I just said, Aliquippa locked up its conference title, and in all probability, Ford City will do the same against Apollo-Ridge this approaching Friday. South Fayette and Seton-LaSalle play for theirs on TV Thursday (more on that later), though both teams should get a respectable playoff seeding. Then we come to GCC, the current front-runner in the Interstate Conference, but I’m still not totally convinced the Centurions will hold off resurgent Jeannette for the title in Week 9. Greensburg Central struggled in Week 7 against Mohawk, which has been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, and in Week 5 they barely beat a Mount Pleasant team that Jeannette handled with relative ease last Friday. GCC’s two toughest games lie ahead, as Friday’s meeting with playoff-bound East Allegheny precedes the game against Jeannette, which boasts the No. 1 scoring offense in Double-A. Still, we’ve seen some good team efforts from the WPIAL champs, especially in the clutch, and you know how the cliché goes…until someone beats them, they’re still the champs…sooo…
*As long as we’re talking about very good teams that might still be vulnerable, let’s shift our attention to McKeesport in Class AAAA. Before I proceed I want to give some overdue credit to new head coach Jim Ward. All smoke-blowing aside, it’s not easy for kids to have to learn an unfamiliar system from an unfamiliar person who isn’t necessarily as set in his ways as George Smith. Ward and his Tigers have done a fine job hanging together and staying competitive, but how much longer can they keep playing with fire before they get burned? Right now this team is surviving, as opposed to its usual practice of winning convincingly; their margin of victory over the last three games has been a combined 17 points, and before that, they only managed two offensive touchdowns against a Seneca Valley team that won’t be in the playoffs. The Tigers have Division I talent on defense and a great running back in Sam Gooden, which has helped them enjoy continued success even when they haven’t played their best, but I wonder how long that success will last if they do not do a better job finishing off opponents.
*If you listened to this station last Friday, you heard North Allegheny defeat Pine-Richland rather handily, and you might also have heard color commentator Dan Zangrilli call NA the best Quad-A team he’s seen all year. Where are the Tigers right now? The Post-Gazette and MSA Sports Network each have NA behind top-ranked Pittsburgh Central Catholic, and I’m fine with that. Central’s biggest wins have come in lopsided fashion against Bethel Park, Woodland Hills, and Gateway, three recent WPIAL finalists and three teams that tend to have their you-know-what together. Plus, the Vikings were the only local team to win at the “Rally at the Wolvarena.” NA’s quality wins have come in a rout of Upper St. Clair and a closer one against Erie McDowell, but the “North Bowl” in Week 9 against North Hills is when we’ll learn the most about both those teams. MSA has Mount Lebanon ahead of NA, while the P-G has it the other way around. I’m glad they disagree, because that’s a tough one for me to gauge too. Mount Lebanon’s size and running game would match up very evenly with what the Tigers bring. So I still think we have something to learn about NA, but I agree with Mr. Zangrilli’s greater point that they have the ingredients of a WPIAL champion.
*One of the best running backs in the district that nobody talks about is Christian Henckel of Geibel. He’s also one of the most important ones. The Gators are still in the hunt for their first playoff appearance since 1991, and he has been the driving force behind the success of that team. Henckel’s 284 rushing yards in last Friday’s blowout of Mapletown keep him at the top of the Class A leaderboard with 1,126, and he is averaging 7.3 per attempt. In years past stopping the Geibel offense wasn’t hard, because they didn’t have guys like Henckel who could even remotely strike fear into the hearts of opponents. Geibel’s offense has registered 157 points with him in the backfield and is on pace to beat its 2009 mark of 173. But the true measure of a star is what he does when his team needs him the most. In their last two games, the Gators face two teams ahead of them in the standings, Carmichaels and California, and need to win at least one to erase that playoff drought. Both defenses are about the middle of the pack in the Tri-County South, which sets the table nicely.
*Rochester in the Big 7 Conference and Clairton in the Black Hills Conference may seem destined to meet at Heinz Field, but the conference that will fare best overall on the Class A side of the bracket is undoubtedly the Eastern Conference. In addition to the Rams and Bears, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if both of the other semifinal spots went to Eastern teams, because they will be the most battle-tested. How tight is it there? It’s the only section in the WPIAL in which zero playoff clinchings have taken place through Week 7. The top five teams are separated by exactly one game, each is averaging over 25 points per game, and only one defense in that group is allowing more than 14 points per game. Granted, a lot of that ambiguity may go away after Friday, since Avonworth, Bishop Canevin, and Springdale can clinch playoff spots with Week 8 victories. But between the passing of North Catholic’s Martin Long and Bishop Canevin’s Matt Butter, the stifling defense of Avonworth, and the power running of Springdale, any of those teams are capable of turning heads in November.
For more of the latest news and views on and off the gridiron, be sure to check out The Post-Gazette High School Football Show Presented by First Commonwealth Bank with the Post-Gazette’s Mike White and MSA’s Don Rebel. Due to Pitt’s noon kickoff against Rutgers, catch us at a special time this week: Saturday morning 7:00-9:00 on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan and 937thefan.com!