The 2010 WPIAL Football Playoffs are less than 48 hours away, but I’ve still had a few things on my mind since the regular season came to an end. How did North Hills beat a North Allegheny team many felt was unbeatable? Two running backs set new records in Week 9, but whose team will get closer to Heinz Field, if not get there? These are a couple of the questions Mr. High School Sports will try to answer before plunging into his postseason coverage. Here are my “Quick Outs” for the ninth and final week of the regular campaign:
*I figured the “North Bowl,” in spite of Alex Papson and NA’s powerful offensive line, would be a closer game than some people probably expected, just because of what a sound defensive football team North Hills has been this year. In fact, if I were awarding a game ball for the Indians’ win last Friday, I’d have to swim against the stream and give it to defensive coordinator Pat Carey. For years Carey has brought a great deal of savvy to Jack McCurry’s coaching staff, and I believe North Hills won this game because Carey, like McCurry, was willing to leave his comfort zone and switch to a very unconventional 5-2 defensive formation. Having that extra body up front made a difference and took away space from Papson, and it just goes to show what a great X’s and O’s guy Carey is. In 1999 McKeesport upset North Hills in a first round playoff game on the strength of Syracuse recruit Cecil Howard, who ran all over creation against a very good defense. Carey spent a good portion of the following season talking to several college coaches, learning how to scheme against George Smith’s flex-bone offense, and the next time the teams met in the playoffs, Howard couldn’t get a first down to save his own life. Prior to that, Carey actually coached North Hills to a big win over Mount Lebanon on a night when McCurry was absent for health reasons. Few assistant coaches have their kids ready to play like he does. Jack McCurry, who tied Pat Tarquinio for No. 3 on the WPIAL all-time wins list at 269, will probably get a lot of the glory for this victory, and deservedly so. But make no mistake…Pat Carey is a presence on that coaching staff.
*There’s been a lot of talk about the issue of head safety in football, and there probably will be even more now, at least in the Heartland, after a high school player in Kansas who was concussed earlier in the season died last week in the wee hours of the morning after taking a hit and hitting his own head on the turf. It’s a terrible story, but I can’t point fingers here, because the team did nothing wrong. They held the player out of multiple games following his initial head injury, and they did not let him return to action until being cleared by a reliable doctor. It’s not that I don’t care about player safety, and I don’t want just reduce this issue to the phrase “[crap] happens,” but what else can I say? Every job has risk associated with it at some level. For example, one risk associated with my own job is job security. For those who choose to play football, they know there’s a risk they could end up mentally retarded by age 50, or, heaven forbid, end up with some other long-term injury. But if you want to talk prevention, I don’t think it’s fair or practical to further legislate physical play. It’s about coaches teaching proper technique, and it’s about players executing it. When I produced Gregg Giannotti’s old evening show we were lucky enough to get Green Bay Packers legend Jerry Kramer on one night, a man who played the game as hard as anyone in his era, and he is still sharp as a tack at age 74. If coaches and players want to prevent head injuries, they need to use their heads…just not literally.
*The number one rusher in the WPIAL this regular season was not Rushel Shell, but last Thursday’s win over West Allegheny was not without its milestones. Shell ended Week 9 with 2,102 rushing yards, making him the first tailback in WPIAL history to run for 2,000 yards two years in a row, and his total was the third-best in District 7 regular season history. That’s because Delrece Williams of Steel Valley beat the previous WPIAL regular season record set three years ago by Bill Bair of Mars (2,112 yards) by finishing with 2,149 yards. Two elite running backs entering what might be the two deepest playoff brackets top to bottom. Whose team will go further? My money is on Williams and the Ironmen embracing the sleeper role in Class AA. I picked Steel Valley to upset Beaver Falls in the First Round because right now Williams is playing on another stratosphere, and this year’s Tigers don’t have a lot of playoff experience. In the Quarterfinals Steel Valley would face either Greensburg Central Catholic or Keystone Oaks. Neither is a walk in the park, but Steel Valley can handle both. The Centurions have not played spectacular football down the stretch, and Williams is way better than some of the featured backs they’ve had to face recently. KO has backed its way into the playoffs, and Steel Valley already manhandled them once. Meanwhile, I think Hopewell will get by Franklin Regional, because Shell and the Vikings are also playing their best football at the right time, and the Panthers don’t have the size to stop him, but Thomas Jefferson, the probable Quarterfinal opponent, is another matter. TJ has superior team chemistry and doesn’t depend on one player the way Hopewell does. And after last year’s “early” exit (early by TJ standards), that will be one motivated football team.
*Expect the cream to rise to the top in Class A. Clairton and Rochester are head and shoulders above the competition once again. Though if that rematch does take place, it might be the toughest game Clairton plays all year, the operative word being “might.” The only WPIAL Class A team as dominant as the Bears has been Gene Matsook’s Rams, so any game between those two will be a struggle just the same as last year’s championship affair. But is there another team in the state that theoretically looks like they could give Clairton–and Rochester, for that matter–a ballgame. Sharpsville, a PIAA District 10 Class A team, coasted through its Region 1 schedule and put up similarly gaudy numbers. Clairton was the top-scoring team in the state with 483 points (avg. 53.6/game), but Sharpsville was not far behind them with 444 (avg. 49.4/game), good for the No. 3 spot behind Mercyhurst Prep (445 pts.), also of District 10. Tom Nola’s Bears also finished first in the PIAA in points allowed with 19 (avg. 2.1/game), but once again, the Blue Devils stood third with just 38 points allowed (avg. 4.2/game) behind Class AA North Schuylkill of District 11 (22 pts. allowed).
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