By Matt Popchock
You don’t know this, because Mr. High School Sports was too busy enjoying a delicious turkey dinner to put it in print, but in the interest of full disclosure, he picked Clairton, South Fayette, Central Valley, and Woodland Hills to capture gold last Saturday. Three out of four ain’t bad…and neither were any of the WPIAL Championship games on a chilly but fun-filled day at Heinz Field. Before looking ahead to the state playoffs, I think it’s worth taking one last look back at Championship Saturday. Here are my impressions of the event, as I present my “Quick Outs” for Week 13:
*Speaking as a lifelong Pitt football fan, there are two reasons I’m looking forward to the 2011 season. Number one, the 2010 season is almost over. Number two, seeing Clairton quarterback/defensive end Desimon Green and Woodland Hills running back Lafayette Pitts don the blue and gold. After seeing both play, I don’t think either will disappoint at the college level, even if neither of them see any action as freshmen. Green, in particular, showed me a lot of closing speed and an ability to separate from the block quickly. His touchdown pass to Trenton Coles was one of the best plays of the entire day, and symbolic of that team’s season. Every time they needed a big play, somehow, some way, Green made it.
*The remarkable thing about Clairton is the way the Bears slam the door in the other team’s face any time it gets a hint of momentum. Rochester had its share of opportunities to change the complexion of Saturday’s game, but every time the Rams got good field position one way or the other, Clairton’s defense took its own game to another level. Not even the second-best team in Class A could make a dent on the scoreboard, ironically one week after Springdale, which I think is just one notch below Rochester, became the first team to score on the Bears in the playoffs. What else impressed me was the way Clairton overcame a rash of penalties. In fact, the only team that might be able to beat them is one that either takes advantage of the Bears’ lack of discipline, or can frustrate Clairton into taking more penalties, but as we found out Saturday, I don’t know if such a Class A team exists anywhere in the state.
*South Fayette is not necessarily a team known for stellar defense, but I feel that group stole the spotlight and the game for the Lions against Aliquippa. Last year against Greensburg Central Catholic it seemed like the Quips were never really in that game, but this year’s trip to Heinz Field was a different story. Ben Cobb and Dravon Henry ran the ball effectively, and the final numbers would have you think Aliquippa manhandled South Fayette for the better part of four quarters. Ball security was obviously part of the Quips’ undoing, but I think that was largely a result of South Fayette tackling exceptionally well, especially linebacker Trevor Fiorentini, who would get my game ball if I were to give one out for all four contests. He and the other linebackers made a concerted effort to force those fumbles on every running play. I thought it would cripple South Fayette’s chances to win if Christian Brumbaugh didn’t have a huge day statistically, but Fiorentini and his mates proved me wrong and took the pressure off him.
*Another lesson we can take from the Class AA game is that even a pass-happy team like the Lions needs balance to be successful. By now this probably sounds incredibly trite, but you just can’t win, let alone win on the big stage, if you can’t run the ball. Sure, Christian Brumbaugh set the table by throwing two TD passes to the Challingsworth brothers, including what would prove to be the game-winning score, but ultimately the Lions relied upon their running game to really put the game out of reach. Even though Jeff Davis was held under a hundred yards, it didn’t matter, because a lot of his yardage came at the end of the game, with South Fayette trying to wind clock and pad its lead. The real back-breakers were, in addition to Fiorentini’s touchdown run, a QB keeper by Brumbaugh to convert a third down, and a short plunge by Fiorentini to keep the game-clinching drive alive on fourth down. Brumbaugh may get all the glory, but his running backs really help drive that offense, and they made the difference on Saturday.
*Julian Durden actually had a pretty good game last weekend, but you wouldn’t know it by the way Central Valley’s defense contained him. During their remarkable championship run the Warriors showed us how under-rated that defense was all along, they showed the importance of team chemistry, and they showed just how meaningless stats can be if you do play well as a team. No one from Central Valley jumped off the page, but all of its team leaders did something important, whether it was Robert Foster’s great hustle on his punt return touchdown, Matt Bradford fooling everyone on his QB sneak to the end zone, or Lukas Turley doing yeoman’s work on offense and delivering a game-changing sack of Dillon Buechel on defense.
*If there is one individual on Central Valley’s roster you should keep an eye on, it’s Robert Foster. Although he had already made some heroic plays on offense and special teams during the regular campaign, he really made a name for himself during the playoffs. Foster proved he’s a big-game player, and don’t think college scouts will overlook that, even though he’s only a sophomore and still probably another year away from getting a lot of serious offers. The more he uses that blazing speed of his to affect games, the more voluminous those offers will become. Meanwhile, the two Montour Spartans you should keep an eye on are Dillon Buechel and Julian Durden. They were the driving force behind the Spartans’ offense throughout the season, and both have accomplished so much only as juniors. Getting back to Heinz Field won’t be easy even for that team, as long as it continues to play in the pain-in-the-butt Parkway Conference with teams like Central Valley (not to mention West Allegheny, Hopewell, and New Castle), but as long as Buechel and Durden stay healthy, don’t be surprised if the Spartans are back there next fall.
*Originally I expected the Quad-A game to come down to whether Lafayette Pitts or Alex Papson could best navigate their way across a playing surface that looked more like a sand trap at Oakmont than an NFL/NCAA football field. So it came as a surprise to me that NA got away from its game successfully and get up on Woodland Hills early by chucking the ball downfield against such a talented secondary. In order for the Tigers to go far in the state playoffs, they’ll need more games like that from Mike Buchert, because losing Alex Papson to a collarbone injury really cripples their chances, to say nothing of all the great Quad-A teams there are on the other side of the state. Once Papson disappeared from Saturday’s game, the Tigers’ offense seemed to disappear with him, so even though Buchert’s arm and the defense should be plenty to get NA past State College, nothing short of a career night from backups Vince Congendo and Nick Passodelis will get them further.
*By the way, I don’t think the messy field was much of a factor, did you? We didn’t see players lose their footing with any kind of regularity, we didn’t see any serious leg or foot injuries of any kind, and we had a 100-yard rusher in three of the four games. Having said that, it’s time for a new playing surface at Heinz Field. I have no problem playing the championship games there, because as others before me have said, it’s a good reward for the kids who make it that far, and the Steelers have always been cool with it. But enough is enough. The Rooneys went with a grass field when the facility was built because they liked the idea of natural grass, and because players voted on it…but that was over a decade ago, and those were Bill Cowher’s players. Sports technology has evolved since then, including playing surfaces. Surely a smart family like the Rooneys that always has its collective finger on the pulse of the sport realizes that…right? Turf is no longer the glorified concrete the Steelers played on at Three Rivers Stadium, and the proof is in the pudding that Heinz Field’s natural playing surface can’t support two teams for an entire season free of damage, and Pitt isn’t moving out anytime soon. So here’s hoping sooner rather than later we see FieldTurf on the North Shore so that all of western PA’s finest can play with peace of mind.
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 Saturday morning 7:00-9:00 on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan and 937thefan.com!