By Matt Popchock
Art Walker could probably teach you a thing or two about winning championships. After all, he won a pair of WPIAL crowns as head coach at Pittsburgh Central Catholic from 1998 through 2004. He certainly taught his old team a lesson Friday night: that you can’t win one without a fast, never-say-die defense.
Walker’s North Allegheny Tigers found it in them to out-hustle and outmuscle one of the quickest teams in the WPIAL, the top-seeded Vikings, in a 17-7 upset over Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the Class AAAA Semifinals at Fox Chapel’s James M. Burke Stadium, the first meeting between the squads since Walker took the NA job in ’05. North Allegheny will make its first-ever visit to Heinz Field next Saturday night to face defending champion Woodland Hills in the WPIAL Class AAAA Championship for a shot at its first District 7 crown since 1990.
The fifth-seeded Tigers did what no other could and made junior tailback Damion Jones-Moore a non-factor, limiting him to six net rushing yards on 16 carries. NA’s defense also made timely plays against quarterback and fellow junior Perry Hills, sacking him three times and picking him off twice.
Meanwhile, NA senior running back Alex Papson shook off a tough start and found a way to break the Vikings’ bend-but-don’t-break defense, scoring an enormous game-clinching touchdown and finishing with on 186 yards on 34 carries.
Such yardage did not come easily for either school at the beginning of this game, which was to be expected from two athletic defenses that each allowed under ten points per game entering this round. Jones-Moore was stuffed on several early attempts, including twice on third down, and Papson found the sledding equally tough; in fact, the first quarter almost went by without either team earning a first down. But the Vikings’ “O” eventually was able to feed off the momentum of that stifling “D” early on.
Halfway through the opening frame Matt Steinbeck fumbled a Hills punt. Steinbeck, who never called for a fair catch, got blasted right after he dropped the ball, resulting in an easy recovery by Pittsburgh Central Catholic at the North Allegheny 25-yard line. On the ensuing play Hills, who finished 15-of-33 for 250 yards, hit Dustin Lowman right down the middle for his tenth touchdown pass of the year and the game’s first score. John Murphy’s extra point gave Central a 7-0 lead with 5:55 left in the first.
Central had two more great opportunities to extend the lead before the quarter expired on an Ed Latimer interception to the NA 36, and a shanked punt by the Tigers that went out of bounds at their own 30. However, North Allegheny’s defense stiffened both times, and they even started to generate some magic of their own when Justin Haser picked off Hills in the right flat and took it to the Viking 40-yard line on the last play of the period.
The second quarter began with a key facemask penalty on the Vikings and with Papson finding his legs, as he converted an early fourth-and-short to keep the drive going. Shortly thereafter senior quarterback Mike Buchert floated a 12-yard pass on target to Dan Slivka just inside the left pylon for his ninth TD pass overall, and Alex Greenblatt’s extra point made it 7-7 with 8:34 left in the half. Central had plenty of time to break the tie before the break, but Hills threw another interception, this time to Brendan Coniker, and the Vikings’ QB was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the Tigers’ 33 moments before halftime.
North Allegheny started the second half with the ball and with Papson looking more like his old self, gaining 31 yards on five rushes during the first possession and moving the Tigers past midfield. But Latimer took center stage at that point, recovering a Papson fumble just before his knee came down near the Central 45-yard line to take back momentum, and five minutes later, with NA driving once again, he notched his third turnover by intercepting Buchert, who completed just five passes for 13 net yards, in front of the end zone.
Generally the Tigers seemed to carry the play in the third quarter, but, with neither defense willing to budge, the score remained deadlocked until the Tigers, behind Papson, mounted a drive that spilled into the fourth. When it stalled inside the red zone, Greenblatt booted what turned out to be a game-winning 33-yard field goal from right between the hash marks with 10:50 to go in regulation to give North Allegheny its first lead of the night, 10-7.
The Vikings had designs on a dramatic comeback, and with time ticking down and the passing game firing on all cylinders, it seemed Hills was poised to lead a game-winning drive of his own. As if on cue, the NA defense again rose to the challenge by neutralizing Jones-Moore and providing blanket pass coverage, prompting a gutsy decision by head coach Terry Totten to let strong-legged Murphy try a 50-yard field goal with 5:12 left. Believe it or not, it had the distance…but not the direction, as it sailed wide left to preserve the Tigers’ advantage.
With Central out of timeouts Papson and the Tigers needed only a couple of first downs to secure the mildly shocking win, and with 3:12 remaining in the fourth quarter he did them one better. Turning a dirt-simple draw play on third-and-8 into something much more, Papson found a crease on the right side, shed a tackle while cutting back toward the middle of the field, and outraced the Central Catholic secondary for his 31st touchdown of the campaign, a 67-yard run. Greenblatt provided the final point of the night.
Hills and his mates would not give up, but in a microcosm of Jones-Moore’s night, a 34-yard touchdown pass to the tailback that would have brought Central within one score with a reasonable amount of time left was wiped out on a holding penalty. A few incomplete passes and a few kneel-downs later, those partisans covered in black and gold left the visitors’ bleachers and joined their team in celebration.
The Vikings, three years removed from their last WPIAL championship, end their season at 11-1. North Allegheny, which will make its first championship appearance since a loss to New Castle at Three Rivers Stadium in 1998, owns an identical 11-1 mark.
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!