“Mr. High School Sports” – Special Report: WPIAL Class AAA Football Championship
In the immortal words of CBS broadcaster Gus Johnson, the slipper still fits.
On Saturday evening at Heinz Field head coach Mark Lyons outfoxed his clever counterpart, Lou Cerro, and his Central Valley Warriors turned those glass slippers into gold medals, capping off one of the greatest Cinderella campaigns in WPIAL football history.
In its first year of existence Central Valley (10-3) went from third-place Parkway Conference team to the unenviable position of No. 14 seed to the very enviable position of District 7 champions by scoring 24 unanswered points to knock off the previously unbeaten Parkway champs, the Montour Spartans, 24-7 in the WPIAL Class AAA Championship.
According to our sources, it is the first time in modern WPIAL football history a team has won the championship after finishing third in its conference.
Explosive sophomore receiver and rising star Robert Foster scored twice, and while the Warriors used another cornucopia of big plays to stun another favored opponent this Thanksgiving weekend, their defense offset a typically good day on paper by the Spartans (12-1) by frustrating junior quarterback Dillon Buechel into making ill-timed plays.
This football crown marked the first for the newborn program since Monaca won gold in Class A in 1985. Center High School, though it shared the Midwestern Conference title last year, never won a WPIAL football championship prior to merging with the Monaca School District this past summer to form the new school. Central Valley now must face District 10 champ Erie Cathedral Prep (8-4) in the PIAA Class AAA Quarterfinals at Erie’s Veterans Stadium Friday night at 7:00.
Earlier in the day 45 turned out to be a magic number for South Fayette, which ended a 45-year championship drought, but this was not the case for Montour, which also won its last title in 1964.
However, it looked like this might be the Spartans’ day early on, as Cody Rosen sacked Central Valley junior quarterback Matt Bradford and forced a fumble recovered by the Spartans’ Tyler Haddock. Even after the Montour offense couldn’t cash in off the turnover, the defense stiffened yet again, and junior tailback Julian Durden took charge after a scoreless first quarter.
He finished the night with a game-high 158 yards on 22 carries, par for the course for one of the top rushers in the WPIAL, and his 22-yard carry brought the Spartans into Central Valley territory for the first time. Despite a holding penalty a couple plays later, Durden would not be denied.
Just 44 seconds into the second quarter one of the top point-getters in Class AAA juked to his left and cut back again to the middle, escaping multiple would-be tacklers for a 25-yard TD run, his 28th score of the year. Lucas Tournay’s extra point gave one of the best offenses in western PA a 7-0 lead, and alas, its final point of the ballgame.
Things looked even better for the number one team in the classification when, after Foster ripped off a 54-yard run up the near sideline, defensive back Aaron Reed intercepted a ball in the back corner of the end zone that was under-thrown by a harried Bradford. Still, the Warriors kept their poise, and Bradford redeemed himself later in the frame. He fooled Montour and snuck into the end zone untouched from one yard out after a bad Spartans punt and a handful of productive runs by Lukas Turley. Greg Nicastro’s P.A.T. tied the game with 3:29 left in the half.
After the Spartans were unable to move the ball on the ensuing drive Foster showed what has made him a special player for the Warriors: his hustle. A towering punt seemed to hang in the air forever, and with Montour’s special teams not covering the bouncing ball with any urgency, Foster grabbed it and turned on the jets in one motion for what proved to be a game-winning 35-yard touchdown sprint with under two minutes remaining. Nicastro made it 14-7 Central Valley at halftime.
The score remained unchanged in the third quarter; the Warriors were unable to extend their lead after a great second half kickoff return due to a Foster fumble recovered by the Spartans’ Darren Massey near his own 30-yard line. Durden carried Montour into Central Valley real estate as the fourth quarter began, and it would be up to Central Valley’s defense to turn the game around.
Buechel hit Devin Wilson for an 18-yard gain, putting Montour on the Warriors’ 14-yard line and on the threshold of tying the game. But on what might have been the two most important plays of the game, Durden was stopped deep in his own backfield on third down, and on fourth down Turley sacked Buechel back at the 30 to end the threat. On the Warriors’ ensuing play Bradford put a long pass right on the money to Foster, who took it in stride down the Central Valley sideline and sent half the North Shore into a frenzy with a 70-yard touchdown, his 12th overall TD of the year, with 9:52 left in regulation.
No one expected the Spartans to give up, so it did not come as a shock when Buechel passed his team to the plus side of the field, but one final opportunity to make the game interesting was snuffed out when Aaron McGee coughed up the ball after catching it from Buechel well inside Central Valley territory.
Aaron Law changed field position in the Warriors’ favor in one play, a back-breaking 69-yard run. Just for good measure, Nicastro tacked on a 30-yard field goal with five minutes remaining.
It marked the end of a dream for one school and the end of an improbable one for another.
For more of the latest news and views on and off the gridiron, be sure to check out the season finale of The Post-Gazette High School Football Show Presented by First Commonwealth Bank next Saturday morning 7:00-9:00 on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan and 937thefan.com!