“Mr. High School Sports” – Special Report: WPIAL Class AAAA Football Championship
By Matt Popchock
For the third week in a row the North Allegheny Tigers upended one of the premier Quad-A programs in western PA, this time on the biggest stage in western PA, as the cardiac kids of Turtle Creek finally ran out of resiliency.
Despite damage to two of Art Walker’s star players in the second half, both of them did enough damage themselves beforehand.
Senior quarterback Mike Buchert went 6-for-6 in the first half with two touchdowns and finished 6-of-9 for 137 yards, while senior tailback Alex Papson rumbled for 123 on 22 runs and the game-winning TD, also in the first half, allowing NA to survive Woodland Hills (10-3) in a frantic 21-14 finish at Heinz Field Saturday night in the WPIAL Class AAAA Championship. Papson missed most of the second half with what was later revealed as a collarbone injury.
The Tigers (12-1) stymied Woodland Hills junior quarterback Pat Menifee all night, sacking him and forcing an interception on plays that killed each of the Wolverines’ last two drives to earn North Allegheny’s only other WPIAL title since 1990. In doing so they denied the Wolverines’ bid for back-to-back championships, not to mention George Novak’s bid for a record seven outright ones.
Containing senior tailback Lafayette Pitts didn’t hurt either. Although he broke through for a late touchdown run that gave Woody High new life, it was perhaps the only redeeming quality of a tough day at the office for the Pitt recruit, who was held to 49 yards on 18 tries by NA’s notoriously stubborn defensive line. It was another terrific performance by a group that had to play significant time without defensive back Matt Steinbeck, who sat out roughly half the game with a leg injury.
After battling through the former WPIAL champs, not to mention two key injuries, NA now prepares for a rematch with State College (7-6) of District 6 in the PIAA Class AAAA Quarterfinals Friday night at 7:00 at Pine-Richland Stadium. The Little Lions defeated City League champion Perry in an exciting First Round contest, and they will seek revenge on North Allegheny for a 42-7 drubbing in Wexford in the Tigers’ season opener.
In spite of being pinned in the shadow of its own goal posts after a great punt by Pitts, North Allegheny set an early tone on its first series. Buchert got the Tigers out of trouble on a 45-yard catch-and-run to an open Dan Slivka, who raced up the near sideline to put his team across midfield. It seemed as though a modified snap count by NA destroyed the timing of the Wolverines’ defense throughout the game, as an encroachment penalty on third down, the first of seven pre-snap penalties by the unusually undisciplined bunch, kept the drive going. One more long bomb to Slivka and one Tiger timeout later, Buchert hit tight end Rob Kugler from three yards out, and Kugler hung on as he fell in the back of the end zone for the game’s first touchdown with 5:10 gone.
Kugler, a Division I recruit and the son of Pittsburgh Steelers O-line coach Sean Kugler, was one of several along NA’s defensive front who did a very commendable job bottling up Woody High’s athletic offense. He contributed one of three NA sacks and five tackles for a combined 17 yards lost.
He and his mates continued to tee off on Pitts, who still found the sledding tough as the second quarter began. Even after a bad Matt Steinbeck punt put the Wolverines at the NA 33-yard line, he was stopped again, and Kevin Cope brought down Menifee 17 yards deep for his first sack, but not his most important one.
Once NA took over, Papson and Buchert put the Tigers on the march immediately, with Buchert and Slivka connecting on a tenuous 27-yard pass play. Slivka, as he fell, made a bobbling catch of a ball tipped by a Woodland Hills defender. On third down Buchert rolled to his right, threw to the near side of the end zone, and James Kleinhampl made a leaping 21-yard TD grab while getting both feet down inside the chalk. Alex Greenblatt’s extra point gave the Tigers a 14-0 cushion with 6:30 left in the half.
Just as they had in their semifinal upset of Pittsburgh Central Catholic, the Tigers’ defense continued playing at another level, allowing the offense to take over one more time. Thanks to Papson, that time would not be wasted. With 2:56 to go till intermission the Class AAAA rushing leader slipped through right tackle and outraced several desperate defenders for a 43-yard touchdown, his 32nd rush TD of the year, and Greenblatt gave NA a stunning 21-0 lead.
It appeared a roughing the passer penalty to the Tigers and a 46-yard strike from Menifee to Shakeem Alonzo would finally give Woody High’s offense a much-needed spark with the second quarter winding down. However, with the ball at the Tigers’ 3-yard line, Pitts lost control of it just before his knee hit the ground, and Cope recovered for North Allegheny, a play that would prove critical in the bigger picture.
The upstart Tigers carried their 21-point lead midway through the third quarter, but a funny thing happened to the defending Quad-A champs on the way back to the bus. An Alex Greenblatt punt gave the Wolverines good field position, and two plays after Pitts carried for a first down, Menifee found Alonzo all alone in the right flat, and he ran to the end zone untouched for a 46-yard score that got Woodland Hills on the board with 4:35 left in the frame.
Without the services of Papson, the Tigers had lost some swagger on offense, and at the end of the ensuing drive, they lost some poise too. A long punt snap sailed way over the head of Greenblatt, and Woodland Hills took over on the NA 25. Pitts, not missing a beat, ran through a gaping hole on the right side and all the way to paydirt for a 25-yard TD on the very next play. Sam Scifo’s extra point was good once again, and suddenly, with 1:24 left in only the third quarter, a blowout had become a seven-point nail-biter.
The schools traded fourth quarter possessions, and the Wolverines got what looked to be one last shot at forcing overtime as Menifee and Pitts each enjoyed long runs, and Menifee hit Quinton Jefferson in the middle of the field to put his team in the red zone. But on fourth and long, Cope finally chased down a wildly scrambling Menifee for his second sack with just over four minutes left in regulation.
Still, a couple of ill-timed false start penalties by NA and a strategic use of timeouts by Novak gave Woody High one last gasp near midfield with 2:30 left, but after three straight Menifee incompletions and an interception by the Tigers’ Clay Bunting, the celebration was on for the black-and-gold.
For more of the latest news and views on and off the gridiron, be sure to catch the season finale of The Post-Gazette High School Football Show Presented by First Commonwealth Bank Saturday morning 7:00-9:00 on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan and 937thefan.com!