By Matt Popchock
We’re just about one week away from you-know-what, but for the 16 teams still dreaming the dream of playing on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, there’s still one more bridge to cross. Starting at 7:30 Friday night, at eight different venues throughout the district, the WPIAL Football Semifinals will unfold, and the fact that only two defending champions remain has Mr. High School Sports fired up to see some new faces at Heinz Field in the not-too-distant future.
Can Clairton and Rochester handle their business and set the stage for a much anticipated rematch? How will the novice Central Valley Warriors continue to write their feel-good story going against the Thomas Jefferson juggernaut? Could we be headed for an “all-North” Final in Quad-A? Can Beaver Falls continue to buck the odds by ending Christian Brumbaugh’s season without a possible shot at revenge against the Quips? Before these questions are answered, Mr. High School Sports offers his keys to victory and picks for each game, starting with a special report on the Game of the Week:
#1 PITTSBURGH CENTRAL CATHOLIC VIKINGS (11-0) VS. #5 NORTH ALLEGHENY TIGERS (10-1)
CLASS AAAA SEMIFINALS
@ JAMES M. BURKE STADIUM, FOX CHAPEL HIGH SCHOOL
Kickoff @ 7:30; Paul Paterra with play-by-play, Dan Zangrilli with color commentary on the MSA Sports Network (msasports.net)
PITTSBURGH CENTRAL CATHOLIC’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Give them Moore. NA has outgained its opponents by a two-to-one ratio and their defensive line is truly built like a brick wall. But the Vikings need to be patient and continue running Damion Jones-Moore, who has racked up over 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns and continues to be the catalyst of every Central victory.
2. The Hills has eyes… Quarterback Perry Hills was limited by a knee injury last week, and his health could have a significant impact on the effectiveness of Central’s offense. He has thrown for over 1,300 yards and gives the Vikings a dimension they didn’t have before, and that NA might not be able to match.
3. Focus on Papson. The only team to beat NA this year has been arch-rival North Hills, and the Indians seem to have laid out the blueprint for doing so. If the Vikings can contain running back Alex Papson, the game might be theirs to lose.
NORTH ALLEGHENY’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Pound ‘em with Papson. Although the line has been dinged up recently, Alex Papson, who leads Class AAAA with over 2,000 yards on the ground, has found continued success as the focal point of Art Walker’s offense. Any success the Tigers have depends on his ability to run.
2. Be prepared to throw. This is a pass-last team, not a pass-first one, but with Terry Totten likely game-planning around Papson, that might force NA to stray from its comfort zone. Mike Buchert has had his moments, throwing for over 800 yards and eight TD’s, and it’ll be interesting to see what luck he has against this quick secondary.
3. Finish drives. Although Gateway moved the ball against Central, they couldn’t find the end zone and couldn’t make big plays when they needed to. The Tigers need to execute better than the Gators–and score early–in order to stay in this one.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Both these teams have proven they can run, and neither of them will give up a lot of big plays, if both remain at the top of their respective games. The Vikings’ depth and balance on offense with Perry Hills and number two tailback Luigi Lista-Brinza gives them a very slight edge. WINNER: PITTSBURGH CENTRAL CATHOLIC.
#4 NORTH HILLS INDIANS (10-1) VS. #7 WOODLAND HILLS WOLVERINES (8-3)
@ PINE-RICHLAND STADIUM, PINE-RICHLAND HIGH SCHOOL
(This game can be seen on tape delay on FSN following Penguins coverage.)
NORTH HILLS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. The Pitts stop. George Novak showed last week he doesn’t mind letting Lafayette Pitts run between the tackles all night long. Jack McCurry needs to do whatever it takes to slow him down, just like he and his coaches did to Alex Papson.
2. Quarterback conundrum. Two quarterbacks have been leading this offense most of the way, and the more they bring to the Indians’ offense, the harder it is for Woody High to scheme against them. Steve Dutkowski, who threw for the only touchdown in the last meeting, spells Taylor Schmidt, who can run like crazy.
3. A very Brody sequel. Receiver/defensive back Brody Zangaro has 33 catches on the season, and his solid work ethic on defense is a big reason why the Big Red pulled off the Week 2 upset at the Wolvarena. On a team without a lot of big-name playmakers, Zangaro needs to contribute and be on his own game once again.
WOODLAND HILLS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Show them what they’ve missed. When North Hills beat them, the Wolverines did not have a healthy Lafayette Pitts, who has run for over 1,400 yards this year and 24 TD’s (seven in the playoffs), at their disposal. If Pitts gets going, it is questionable whether North Hills has the offensive horses to keep up.
2. A few good Menifee. The North Hills defense has given up less than ten points per game, much less concede very many big plays through the air. For the Woodland Hills offensive to be truly effective, quarterback Pat Menifee must show the same poise down the stretch that he did in last week’s heart-stopping win.
3. Capable Caprara. Linebacker Mike Caprara is just one of the players on Woody High’s defense who could start for a high-profile college. Caprara blocks well in all situations, and on his best day, he is capable of shutting down the other team’s offensive star.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: The last time these teams met in the playoffs, the Wolverines won a close, defense-oriented championship game in ’02. Look for this one to have a similar complexion, and although North Hills has outstanding team chemistry, Woody High’s now-healthy D-1 talent might be just a bit too hot to handle. WINNER: WOODLAND HILLS.
#1 MONTOUR SPARTANS (11-0) VS. #4 MARS PLANETS (10-1)
@ CHARTIERS VALLEY STADIUM, CHARTIERS VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL
MONTOUR’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Remember Butkus’ teachings. Running back/linebacker Austin Miele is a physically tougher player than he looks, and the Mars defense, giving up just 8.5 points per game, loves to hit people, so Montour needs to keep hitting back. Maybe this is what Dick Butkus meant when he told kids to “knock someone on his (butt)?”
2. A Spartan existence. To this point Montour has proven it can play any style of football with success, and against this opponent, the point total may drop and style points may not be scored either. Offensively the Spartans need to make the most of their opportunities, which won’t be as many as they had against Indiana.
3. Put the Planets in space. Dillon Buechel has been incredible, throwing for over 1,800 yards and 20 scores, and in addition to athletic receivers, he also has tailback Julian Durden, who has rushed for almost 1,800 and 26 TD’s. The Spartans need to get Durden the ball and get him out in the open early and often.
MARS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. A Planet in his own world. Tailback Austin Miele has already rewritten the record book while amassing over 1,700 rush yards and 21 touchdowns this season, and he’d better be prepared for a hard day’s work. Mars may need at least 30 carries from him to answer on offense and keep Buechel off the field.
2. Second-tier stars. It’s going to take the best team effort Scott Heinauer’s kids have given all year to beat a complete team like Lou Cerro’s Spartans. Mars needs plenty of help from guys like Seth Geyer, who has run effectively as Miele’s right-hand man.
3. Excellence from Eric. Montour’s passing game could be the x-factor on a night when both running games stack up exceptionally well, so Eric Guzak, who has thrown for more than 900 yards, needs to air it out probably more than what he’s used to and shorten the field for Miele.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Mars hasn’t played in a WPIAL Semifinal since ’02, as a member of Class AA, and the last appearance by Montour was ’07, when they beat…guess who…Knoch, another team from the Greater Allegheny Conference. History and a lethal passing attack both suggest these Spartans are definitely “Bound for Glory.” WINNER: MONTOUR.
#2 THOMAS JEFFERSON JAGUARS (10-1) VS. #14 CENTRAL VALLEY WARRIORS (8-3)
@ NEWMAN STADIUM, NORTH ALLEGHENY HIGH SCHOOL
THOMAS JEFFERSON’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Spread the wealth. Ryan Crouse and Dom Presto have combined for over 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns in the air, and TJ has a slew of running backs that can hurt you. Having so many options is important, because the Warriors’ defense has proven it can make teams one-dimensional.
2. Can’t spell “TJ” without…T.J. Tailback T.J. Mastracia is slated to return after missing the quarterfinals with an ankle injury. With 13 touchdown runs to his credit, not to mention a lot of big pops from his linebacker position, he adds depth to an already deep offense.
3. Play your game. Perhaps the Jaguars got caught looking ahead in last year’s surprising semifinals, and lessons were probably learned. But as long as they remain steadfast on defense and avoid turning the ball over, it’s hard to imagine Thomas Jefferson losing here again.
CENTRAL VALLEY’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. A new Matt-itude. With quarterback Curtis Lewis on the shelf Matt Bradford has come off the bench and kept the offensive machinery humming with over 550 yards and eight TD passes in four games. He also sets the table for the running game, so he needs to attack TJ and the Warriors need to keep him upright.
2. Make the most of turnovers. As the late Herb Brooks said, great moments are born from great opportunities. Although TJ is not a team that tends to beat themselves, if Central Valley can generate turnovers, they need to play opportunistic football and score off them.
3. Who let the ‘dogs out? For an opponent like the Jaguars intimidation is a big factor, and clearly, West Allegheny stunned them last year by embracing the underdog role. The only way Central Valley stays in this game is if it plays with tremendous heart and without fear.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: I echo the sentiments of 93.7 weekend host and “Idle Thoughts” blogger John Phillips, who was very complimentary of the job Mark Lyons has done with this new program. However, against one of the most playoff-savvy programs in history, I believe Cinderella’s foot will outgrow the glass slipper. WINNER: THOMAS JEFFERSON.
#1 ALIQUIPPA QUIPS (11-0) VS. #4 FORD CITY SABERS (11-0)
@ NEXTIER STADIUM, SENECA VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL
ALIQUIPPA’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Show us your Hall pass. Not only is quarterback Mikal Hall usually well protected, he’s also deadly accurate, with 19 touchdowns and almost 1,400 yards in the air thus far. Look for the Quips to come out throwing and try to get an early lead, then turn up the heat on defense to preserve it.
2. Rough up Gispanski. Although Hall’s counterpart, Cody Gispanski, does most of his damage with his arm, he has 1,200 all-purpose yards, and he can make things happen on his feet. If Aliquippa’s defense can get him off his feet, it seriously handicaps Ford City’s offense.
3. No forward thinking. In spite of Ford City’s stubborn defense, the Quips have the raw talent and athleticism to overcome, but they can’t look ahead to Heinz Field. The Sabers may be looking for their first-ever championship berth, but they are one of the most overlooked programs in the WPIAL.
FORD CITY’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Don’t be “Hateaun.” Hateaun Mathis might be the Quips’ most effective receiver, having racked up 580 yards and ten scores, and he is also a return specialist who can tip the battle of field position in Aliquippa’s favor. Special teams must be smart, and the DB’s have to stick right with him.
2. Power play. The last time Aliquippa tasted defeat was in last year’s WPIAL Final, when Greensburg C.C. used a smash-mouth running game to keep them on their heels all day. Ford City thrives on bruising backs like Kent Commodore, who has over 600 rush yards and 11 TD’s, which might play to its advantage.
3. A strong start. The Sabers have not always started games to the best of their ability, often relying on a strong second half to put teams away. As Beaver found out the hard way, you don’t normally get that opportunity against Aliquippa.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Ford City is a physical team that has moved the ball effectively all year by running it, and we all know what happened the last time the Quips faced such a foe. That being said, Aliquippa is too fast and has too much widespread talent for the Sabers to stop them all. WINNER: ALIQUIPPA.
#3 SOUTH FAYETTE LIONS (11-0) VS. #7 BEAVER FALLS TIGERS (10-1)
@ JOE P. DIMICHELA STADIUM, WEST ALLEGHENY HIGH SCHOOL
SOUTH FAYETTE’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Lions, and Tigers, and Brumbaugh…oh my! Christian Brumbaugh is the district’s leading passer with over 2,500 yards and 33 touchdowns and arguably the best gunslinger this side of Pennsylvania. His goal will be to put the Tigers in an early deficit, because neither team is used to playing from behind.
2. Get Davis involved. If not for Brumbaugh, tailback Jeff Davis, who has run for over 1,100 yards, would be the star of this offense, and the Lions need him take the pressure off their quarterback. Whenever Beaver Falls does blitz, Brumbaugh will likely throw to him to try and catch the Tigers’ defense over-pursuing.
3. Squeeze the pig. Beaver Falls is good at forcing turnovers, which is exactly how they were able to avoid a First Round upset by Steel Valley. By and large South Fayette has not had any consistent issues with ball security…and now would not be a good time to start.
BEAVER FALLS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. The kids in the Hall. New Brighton transfer Trey Hall, running behind a solid offensive line, has gained over 1,200 yards and scored 21 times, and is coming off a big night in the quarterfinals. Those linemen need to continue clearing paths for Hall in order to keep the ball out of Brumbaugh’s hands.
2. Double trouble? Wide receiver Tyler Challingsworth is Brumbaugh’s favorite target, averaging 14 yards per catch, and brother Zach is always a threat to score. Beaver Falls needs sound positional play from its secondary, and they can’t let Tyler get a lot of open field in front of him.
3. Now we’re Cook-in’. Linebacker Devon Cook is the biggest presence on the BF defense, owning five sacks and the team lead in tackles to this point. Look for him to either spy on Brumbaugh or to stack the line and try to help his mates take Jeff Davis out of the game.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Could Beaver Falls, a team with new starters at multiple spots who have probably exceeded Ryan Matsook’s expectations, be the team of destiny? No, that would be the Lions, who have the best player at the most important position, a D-1 recruit who has plenty of answers ready for BF’s offense. WINNER: SOUTH FAYETTE.
#1 CLAIRTON BEARS (11-0) VS. #5 SPRINGDALE DYNAMOS (10-1)
@ COUGAR MOUNTAIN STADIUM, YOUGH HIGH SCHOOL
CLAIRTON’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Going Green. Quarterback Desimon Green has hurled 25 touchdowns this year, and as a Pitt recruit at defensive end, he takes away his own side of the field. As long as Green has enough time to get the ball downfield, even just a couple times, receiver Trenton Coles and his mates usually take care of the rest.
2. “Bear” with them. Springdale runs a spread offense, using a committee of running backs to move the ball and control the clock, and the Dynamos, at that position, are a deep team. Clairton has shut out eight opponents and earned 11 consecutive running clocks with ease, but tonight their patience and poise will be tested.
3. Learn from history… …because if the Bears do not, they will be condemned to repeat it. The last postseason meeting between these schools ended in a huge Springdale upset, and this year’s Dynamos give Clairton a look on offense they don’t often see, so the Bears, no matter how good they are, can’t take this team lightly.
SPRINGDALE’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Dynamic Dynamos. Four different players scored rushing touchdowns in Springdale’s rout of Monessen last week, and Bill Arch and Sean Dugan have combined for 31 rush TD’s on the season. Springdale needs to sustain its balanced ground attack in order to have a prayer.
2. Score early. Speaking of offense, a team like the Bears, who have only conceded an amazing 19 points all year, doesn’t leave you a lot of margin for error. Furthermore, they’re an opponent that gets better as the game goes on, so if the Dynamos don’t get on the board quickly, they might not get on the board at all.
3. Don’t stop believin’. To pull off a monumental upset like this one requires a firm belief in oneself. The Dynamos should believe, because they have more talent on this team than perhaps any Clairton has faced to this point, and legendary coach Chuck Wagner, for better or worse, will have them ready to play.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Three years ago the Dynamos became the most recent team to oust Clairton from the WPIAL Playoffs. At this point that feels like thirty years ago to Tom Nola and the Bears, and the way they’re rolling, it might be thirty more before they lose again. WINNER: CLAIRTON.
CLASS A SEMIFINALS
#2 ROCHESTER RAMS (11-0) VS. #3 AVONWORTH ANTELOPES (10-1)
@ MOE RUBENSTEIN STADIUM, AMBRIDGE HIGH SCHOOL
ROCHESTER’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Deer in the headlights. Even with De’Andre Moon hobbled, Rochester still has Nick Tapia and Devon Glass, also an outstanding linebacker, in its backfield, and considering they’ve combined for 1,600 yards and 20 scores, the ‘Lopes have seen nothing like them. Expect the Rams to pound away early and often with the run.
2. The big play. Each of these teams is allowing just seven points per game, so just one crooked number on the scoreboard might be enough to win this one. Whenever the big play does happen, Rochester, which has made them on both sides every week, needs to be sure the ball is in their hands.
3. Get ready to rumble. In two playoff victories the Rams have shredded California and Beth-Center, two Tri-County South Conference teams that don’t have the personnel to keep up with Rochester. Avonworth is definitely a notch above those two, so the Rams need to prepare for a tighter, more physical battle.
AVONWORTH’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Get Jake’d up. Not having featured running back Ricky Lawniczak really hurts Avonworth’s chances, but backup Jake Szolis has over 600 all-purpose yards and nine TD’s on the year, and he’s done a great job carrying the ball and the team. The ‘Lopes desperately need him to be effective once again.
2. Win the special teams battle. With two teams playing outstanding group defense to this point, punting the ball (cleanly) won’t necessarily be a bad thing. When that does happen, Ryan Schmid, who won Avonworth’s First Round game with a punt return, needs to step up and give the ‘Lopes as short a field as he can.
3. Keep it simple. The ‘Lopes can throw the ball when they have to, as Brian Vales has amassed over 900 yards on the season, but he’s up against a Rochester secondary that is great at making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Vales needs to throw to the flats and out of the backfield, and not turn the ball over.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: It’s amazing how much fortunes have changed for the ‘Lopes, a team that plays a style very similar to Rochester, and it’s no accident either. Potentially this game could be closer than imagined, but until that happens, I have to give Gene Matsook, whose teams always find a way to avoid trap games, the benefit of the doubt. WINNER: ROCHESTER.
For all 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 Saturday morning. Due to Pitt’s noon kickoff against South Florida, be sure to catch us at a special time of 7:00-9:00 on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan and 937thefan.com!