By Matt Popchock
Not only is this the time of the year when Mr. High School Sports gives thanks, it’s also the time of the year he looks back on his preseason prognostications to see which ones became reality. Before opening weekend I said three of last year’s defending champions would make it back to Heinz Field, but alas only two will have a shot at WPIAL gold again this Saturday. That’s the one prediction that stands out to me the most, and in the meantime there’s a lot that stood out to me during last week’s WPIAL Semifinals. Therefore, I’d live to give thanks for all the great performances that made it another great fall Friday in western PA. Here are my “Quick Outs” for Week 12:
THE MOST IMPRESSIVE TEAM: Springdale. No, the Dynamos’ season did not end the way Chuck Wagner wanted it to, but I’m sure the legendary coach can still appreciate the effort his team put forth against seemingly unstoppable Clairton. Springdale ran for 196 total yards against a Clairton team that had only allowed 17 net rushing yards this season, and in addition to ending the Bears’ shutout streak, they were still in the game at halftime.
THE BEST PLAYER: Devon Glass. The Rochester tailback/linebacker seems to save his best games for when they matter most, and at a time when the Rams were struggling to light up the scoreboard and needed his leadership on defense, he came through. They were clinging to a tenuous 10-7 lead against the hard-charging Antelopes when Glass picked off Brian Vales in Rochester territory, a play that seemed to turn the game very much around.
THE BIGGEST SURPRISE: Very little regarding this year’s Class A bracket has surprised me to this point. Perhaps the biggest head-turner was seeing Clairton not quite match last year’s string of three consecutive playoff shutouts.
THE THING TO LOOK FORWARD TO: We’re all looking forward to the Clairton-Rochester rematch for obvious reasons, but I’m also eager to see what Eastern Conference co-champion Avonworth does for an encore in 2011. The ‘Lopes really made Rochester work for that victory, and after a pleasantly surprising campaign came to an end, Jason Kekseo talked about “kicking in the door” next season. Them’s fightin’ words.
THE MOST IMPRESSIVE TEAM: South Fayette. I’d really have to rack my brain to remember another quarterback who could hurt a team with his arm the way Christian Brumbaugh did to Beaver Falls, not to mention a team that had such incredible offensive balance. The Lions shredded the Tigers, a team that had played stifling, opportunistic defense in two playoff rounds, early and often.
THE BEST PLAYER: Jeff Davis. On a night when Brumbaugh was not at his statistical best, the Lions would need one of the best under-the-radar players in the WPIAL to contribute, and Davis took his own game to another level against the beleaguered Beaver Falls defense. He ran for 115 yards and a score on 12 carries to take the heat off Brumbaugh and trigger South Fayette’s rout, and later caught one of his touchdown passes, putting the game out of reach before the half.
THE BIGGEST SURPRISE: As great as the Lions are, never in a hundred years did I think Beaver Falls would get mercy-ruled at any point, much less the second quarter. It’s a young Tigers team that had been playing with a lot of maturity to this point, but to see their inexperience get exploited to the point of a 48-7 deficit after beating two quality opponents was a jaw-dropper.
THE THING TO LOOK FORWARD TO: You’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t when you try to defend South Fayette, and as athletic as Aliquippa’s defense is, do they have what it takes to contain Brumbaugh and Davis? In addition, a good team, at some point, has to learn from an ugly loss in order to become great, so how will Beaver Falls grow next season after being humbled?
THE MOST IMPRESSIVE TEAM: Central Valley. At this point how could anyone not tip his or her cap to Mark Lyons for the job he has done nursing the hybrid Warriors through their first year of existence and into the WPIAL Championship game? It’s one thing for the Warriors to make it this far, but to advance past one of the best-run programs in the state in the process, truly makes this one of the most remarkable campaigns in PIAA history.
THE BEST PLAYER: Robert Foster. I heard through the grapevine about the speed of the Central Valley wide receiver, and though he had made plenty of big plays for the Warriors during the regular campaign, he used an incredible night against TJ to really cement his reputation. That speed was on display all night at Newman Stadium, and his 80-yard TD run was a microcosm of his team’s epic victory. Every time the Jaguars seemed ready to take control of the game, he had an answer ready.
THE BIGGEST SURPRISE: I’m really amazed at how Central Valley rewrote the script, so to speak, by beating Thomas Jefferson in uncommonly lopsided fashion. That was a motivated football team after also losing in last year’s semifinals, and they were supposed to be the one taking it to the newcomers. Instead the Warriors showed all of western Pennsylvania what they are made of.
THE THING TO LOOK FORWARD TO: The championship showdown, Montour versus the Warriors, is one positive story on top of another; the Spartans, once upon a time a laughingstock in Class AAA, are now just one win away from ending a 46-year title drought. I will genuinely be happy regardless of who wins this one. On a separate note, how will Thomas Jefferson, the proverbial playground bully, bounce back next season after getting punched in the mouth a second time?
THE MOST IMPRESSIVE TEAM: Woodland Hills. Speaking as a believer in the phrase “what goes around comes around,” it has been entertaining to watch George Novak’s Wolverines “come around” and look like the defending champions they are after an uninspiring start to the season. They began in the vulnerable position of a No. 7 seed, but right now they are playing a darn sight better than one. A true No. 7 seed would not have moved the ball so effectively against such a good North Hills defense.
THE BEST PLAYER: The North Allegheny defensive line. Rather than single out an individual, I’m going to make the executive decision to pick several. It takes a Herculean effort to neutralize an elite running back like Pittsburgh Central Catholic’s Damion Jones-Moore, and those kids pulled it off. Jones-Moore was put in the rare position of having to fight for every single yard, and that, more than anything, spurned NA’s upset.
THE BIGGEST SURPRISE: I may have to flip a coin on this one. It’s tough to gauge what jumped out at me more: seeing an elite running back like Damion Jones-Moore struggle so much, or seeing any running back, let alone Lafayette Pitts, run for well over 200 yards against Jack McCurry’s “D.” There has been no end of intriguing subplots to this year’s Class AAAA bracket.
THE THING TO LOOK FORWARD TO: I would imagine Lafayette Pitts has at least one more good game in him, but Alex Papson, who hasn’t been recruited quite as much because of his size, goes into the Quad-A title contest with more to prove and more to gain from a solid performance. Saturday will provide a glimpse of future college stars, not just those two. Speaking of NA, losing to the Tigers was a tough one to swallow for Central, but the Vikings return a ton of talent and should be the preseason number one…so who will challenge them?
For more of the latest news and views on and off the gridiron be sure to tune into the next edition of The Post-Gazette High School Football Show Presented by First Commonwealth Bank, live from Heinz Field this Saturday morning 7:00-9:30, on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan and 937thefan.com!