It’s amazing how much one’s outlook can change over the course of a season. After all the action in Week 8, I have a whole new lease on life when it comes to picking the favorites in Class AA and determining whether Hopewell can complete a furious comeback and sneak into the Class AAA playoffs. And now that Deer Lakes has finally gotten in, I wonder if any other struggling programs will be playing postseason ball anytime soon? Plus, who is the best player we won’t see in the dance? Here are my “Quick Outs” for Week 8 of the 2010 WPIAL football season:
*I’m changing my championship prediction in Class AA. Hey, I’m allowed, right? I’m sorry, but what I saw on FSN last Thursday made a believer out of me. After they beat Seton-LaSalle, a team that is in many ways South Fayette’s equal, I’ve become convinced that this is the Lions’ year. We thought they were ready for the big time prior to last year’s playoffs, and that turned out not to be the case, but this time it’s true. So, depending on what happens at the pairings meeting next Monday, I’m going with South Fayette versus Aliquippa at Heinz Field, even though I picked a rematch between the Quips and Greensburg Central Catholic before the season began. Paul Alexander of The Fan Morning Show told me last Thursday’s game was one of the best high school contests he’s ever seen, which I don’t think is a crazy notion. It featured 77 points, over 600 aggregate passing yards, two hook-and-laterals, and a lineman nearly scoring on a touchdown pass. But at any rate, Christian Brumbaugh and that offense continue to make big plays when they have to, and what other team could allow the opposing quarterback to throw five touchdowns and still win? Couple that with the fact that GCC is banged up and continues to struggle to victories, and I think this more dynamic, healthier team from South Fayette is destined to play for a title.
*Now that the Deer Lakes Lancers have become the last team to appear in the WPIAL Playoffs that has been a District 7 member program for at least 20 years, let’s shift our attention to the only other longtime WPIAL team never to have been there, the Summit Academy Knights. It’s rather fitting the Knights play out of the Allegheny Conference, just like DL. So what’s it going to take to get them from the regular season to the “second” season one of these days? First and foremost, team chemistry. Part of the Deer Lakes story is that a different player has stepped up for the Lancers every week. That group of kids plays for one another and plays well together, and clearly Todd Hazlett knows how to get the most out of them. I’m sure Steve Sherer is a competent coach too, but how easy can his job be when kids come and go even before each season is over? The Summit Academy is a reform school in Butler County in which kids don’t stay for more than a year, a year and a half tops, and going up there for a football game is worth the trip (where else in the WPIAL could you get changed into your uniform under a tree?), but how much team chemistry can there be when the roster is hardly ever the same? It’s going to take a lucky mix of the right players at the right time, and enough of a downturn by other teams in the conference to end their playoff drought. Failing that, may I suggest a move to Class A? It’s worked for other Class AA programs.
*Two significant developments emerged from Hopewell’s much-anticipated blowout of Ambridge. First of all, with 204 yards, all of them in the first half before sitting out the second half for reasons of sportsmanship, Shell now has 6,165 and cracks the top 20 list of PIAA career rushing leaders. Second of all, the Vikings’ season now comes down to Thursday’s WPIAL Final rematch at West Allegheny. I could go ahead and tell you all of Hopewell’s playoff scenarios, but you might have to take some Tylenol afterward. And if you’re really curious about the system the WPIAL uses to break ties for playoff spots, our friends at the Post-Gazette do a nice job breaking it down. Bottom line is, the Vikings are in if they win. And I don’t think it’s crazy to think Hopewell can get a bit of revenge on the team that beat them for the Triple-A title last year. West Allegheny is locked into second place in the Parkway Conference and will remain home for round one. High school football is just as much about pride as it is about wins and losses, and no Bob Palko team will ever lose due to a lack of effort. But in the standings, this game means nothing to West A, and I really wonder if Hopewell might want this one a little more. I believe life has a funny way of evening out, and after a horrible first half of the season by Hopewell, there’s a certain karma to the way they’ve turned things around.
*Speaking of Rushel Shell, I wonder if Pittsburgh Central Catholic might have found the next Rushel Shell, so to speak. His name is Luigi Lista-Brinza, a freshman tailback who’s been standing in for Damion Jones-Moore while the latter rehabilitates his groin injury. Lista-Brinza rushed for 208 yards last Friday and also caught a 64-yard touchdown pass in an easy win over Altoona, and he has continued to stabilize Central’s offense in Jones-Moore’s absence. As we debate how the top teams in Class AAAA should be seeded next week, their offensive depth is one reason I keep the Vikings right where they are at number one. Imagine a team with two Rushel Shells, or two Mike Caputos, or two Alex Papsons. That’s basically what Central has once Jones-Moore gets healthy, to say nothing of its steady defense and passing game led by Perry Hills. I have to keep this team as the favorite in Quad-A, despite what I’ve seen in recent weeks from North Allegheny and Mount Lebanon, and I’m seeing a long run in the state playoffs too. The P-G’s Mike White has Ridley and LaSalle ahead of Central in his state rankings. If those two can show me a backfield scarier than Terry Totten’s, more power to them.
*I haven’t had a chance to talk about it much this week, but the most fascinating playoff race has to be the Eastern Conference in Class A, where it’s a very real possibility we may have tri-champions. Even the WPIAL Tiebreaker scores are coming down to the wire; right now it’s Avonworth and Springdale at +50 each, Bishop Canevin at +47 and North Catholic at +33. All four are guaranteed playoff berths, but they are also all in contention for the conference title. If Avonworth and Springdale handle their business, and Canevin beats the Trojans in Week 9, then Canevin, Springdale, and the ‘Lopes finish with identical conference records. I know it won’t necessarily end up this way, but after what I’ve seen, I’d have to rank Avonworth the best of the four, followed by Springdale two, Canevin three, and North Catholic four. I talked up Avonworth at the beginning of the season, and they just don’t seem to be taking their foot off the gas. If they don’t go deep in the playoffs, Springdale will, because they have a multi-dimensional running game, an underrated defense, and a big intangible in head coach Chuck Wagner, still sharp as a tack after all these years.
*Who is the best player in the WPIAL from a non-playoff team? It’s tempting to pick Dante Nania of Hempfield, who was the top passer in Class AAAA entering Week 8. As bad as the Spartans have been this year, every Friday night Nania either gives them a chance to win or makes the final result less embarrassing than it otherwise could have been. But instead I’m going to have to go with a different quarterback, John Matarazzo of New Castle, who enters the last week of the regular season as the No. 2 passer in Class AAA with 1,380 yards and seven TD’s. Hempfield plays out of the Foothills Conference, which, once again, comes down to Gateway and McKeesport…and nobody else. Because of the incredibly stiff competition in the Parkway Conference this year, I have to give the edge to Matarazzo; the Red Hurricane isn’t the only tough football team there that’s going to be left out of the postseason.
*If there’s one thing I like it’s seeing new faces in the playoffs, which is why Deer Lakes’ success pleases me, and I was hoping Geibel, another forlorn program, might follow in the Lancers’ footsteps. It’s not going to happen this season, but let’s give some props to Frazier, which is trying to end a long dry spell of its own. The Commodores, playing along with Geibel out of the Tri-County South Conference, haven’t been to the postseason since 2002, and after getting smacked by California in Week 8 they need a win over Monessen in Week 9, which is perfect in conference play, to break that streak. Considering Frazier hasn’t beaten a winning team this season, it may be extended to eight seasons. But the simple fact that this team, along with Geibel, has shown signs of improvement not previously seen is a sign that Single-A football is evolving.
*Don’t forget about defending Quad-A champion Woodland Hills. Lafayette Pitts is healthy and last Friday he ripped of his fifth consecutive 100-yard game, while the defense, which was banged up at the beginning of the season, is fifth in the classification in points allowed. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a defending champion who is a sleeper team, especially one with as much college-caliber talent as Woody High, but that’s what I feel the Wolverines are right now. Any team that has to face these guys in the playoffs will lose sleep, that’s for sure.
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 Louisville, catch us at a special time this week: Saturday morning 7:00-9:00 on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan and 937thefan.com!