By Matt Popchock
For three WPIAL teams their dream of being called the best high school football squads in Pennsylvania comes down to this. Mr. High School Sports will be watching eagerly as one school fights for the right to retain that label, while the other two look to bring remarkable seasons to a remarkable end. How can Clairton stay on top, and how can South Fayette and North Allegheny make history? Here’s a look at their upcoming state championship matchups, and though there’s certainly “no place like home,” we’ll tell you what the Lions, Tigers, and Bears need to do to ensure a happy ride back there from Hershey Park Stadium…
(All three games can be seen live on PCN and heard live thanks to our friends at the MSA Sports Network.)
CLAIRTON BEARS (15-0) VS. TAYLOR RIVERSIDE VIKINGS (14-1)
FRIDAY, 2:00 PM
After winning a state championship and following it up by fielding a defense even more impossible to score against than the year before, the Bears have gradually made the segue from elite team to legendary. The three-time WPIAL champions have one of the best two-way athletes in Class A in Desimon Green, but their success has been tremendously team-oriented. If they have a weakness, Taylor Riverside won’t have an easy time finding it, even though the District 2 champs have put together an impressive six-game win streak fueled by Corey Talerico, another terrific two-way star, that has them in their first state final since 1997.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB/DE Desimon Green, Clairton: 2-of-3, 51 yds, TD; 5 rush, 40 yds, 2 TD vs. Farrell last week
WR/DB Josh Page, Clairton: 2 rec., 78 yds, TD; 62-yd punt return TD vs. Farrell last week
QB/DB Corey Talerico, Taylor Riverside: 6-of-9, 164 yds, 2 TD; 11 rush, 67 yds, 2 TD vs. Bishop Carroll last week
FB/LB Nick Rossi, Taylor Riverside: 19 rush, 84 yds, TD, 2-pt. conv., 5 tackles vs. Bishop Carroll last week
CLAIRTON’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
*Don’t look ahead. It seems incredibly easy for an incredible team that has made the state playoffs look anticlimactic to get cocky. But if the Bears go into this game with the attitude that all they have to do is show up, it seems the Vikings do have the weapons to ambush them.
*Tackle Talerico. Corey Talerico reminds us of Desimon Green in the sense that he can hurt you on his feet just as easily as he can hurt you with his arm. You can’t “out-physical” Clairton, so as long as that defense tees off on Talerico, they’ll take their chances with Rossi.
*Field position. Josh Page is coming off a great effort in the semifinals, and his punt return touchdown really seemed to be a back-breaker for Farrell. The best way Taylor Riverside can turn this game on its ear is to keep him from making more big special teams plays while forcing the Bears to defend a short field.
SOUTH FAYETTE LIONS (15-0) VS. WEST CATHOLIC BURRS (12-2)
SATURDAY, 12:00 PM
While Christian Brumbaugh, the top quarterback in WPIAL history, has cleared a path for an unprecedented march to Hershey by his Lions, all the while clearing space for his name in the record books, South Fayette has brought its defense to the level of its unrelenting offense. Their timing is impeccable, because West Catholic, trying to finish the unfinished business of ’08, has steamrolled the rest of the Philadelphia Catholic League with consistently staunch defense of its own. The District 12 champions like to play power football, and they do it so well that all are wondering if they’ll be too powerful for the Lions to handle.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Christian Brumbaugh, South Fayette: 21-of-31, 362 yds, 6 TD vs. Forest Hills last week
RB/DB Jeff Davis, South Fayette: 14 rush, 147 yds, TD vs. Forest Hills last week
RB/DB Brandon Holloman, West Catholic: 207 rush yds, TD vs. Lewisburg last week
RB Josh Mathis, West Catholic: 923 rush yds this season
SOUTH FAYETTE’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
*Walk the line. South Fayette must control the line of scrimmage. Their offensive line has generally done a great job giving Brumbaugh time and making room for the running game, but West Catholic has a ton of size up front, and they’ve been making pass protection a pain in the butt for their opponents.
*Don’t forget Davis. Teams are so scared of Brumbaugh they almost forget South Fayette can run the ball too. The Lions have already proven at Heinz Field that those who win championships are those who can run effectively. If they don’t do that again, the Burrs most likely will, and it won’t just be Holloman who hurts them.
*The first points. South Fayette doesn’t mind playing from behind, since their offense always has an answer ready. But the Burrs’ defense, which really seems to be strength of that team, is probably much better at playing with a lead than any squad South Fayette has faced to this point.
NORTH ALLEGHENY TIGERS (14-1) VS. LaSALLE EXPLORERS (13-1)
SATURDAY, 5:00 PM
Is the picture at the top of the page an omen? With a patchwork backfield and a quarterback barely visible when he lines up under center, the Tigers have out-muscled and out-hustled everyone standing in their way since stumbling against their hated rivals, clearing all obstacles. This last one will be the toughest of them all, as LaSalle might not have the size, but definitely possesses the speed to become PIAA Class AAAA’s first repeat football champion of the new century. Can the Tigers withstand the tremendous firepower of the District 12 champs and scrape together enough offense themselves to bridge a 20-year title gap?
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB/DB Mike Buchert, North Allegheny: 1,008 pass yds, 11 TD this season
RB/DB Matt Steinbeck, North Allegheny: 21 rush, 161 yds; 32-yd TD pass vs. Cumberland Valley last week
QB/DB Matt Magarity, LaSalle: 10-of-19, 180 yds, 2 TD vs. North Penn last week
RB/DB Jamal Abdur-Rahman, LaSalle: 21 rush, 142 yds, 3 TD vs. North Penn last week
NORTH ALLEGHENY’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
*Stay inside. There will be plenty of exceptional athletes in uniform for the Explorers, a number of which are quick on both sides of the ball. Defensively the Tigers need to get to their playmakers and keep them between the hash marks; offensively they need to do what they do best, which is simply wearing down the opposing defense by running effectively between the tackles.
*More power. NA wins basically by pushing the other team around, and physical toughness is one area where LaSalle might be exploited. The Tigers need to continue their aggressive running attack, and their defensive linemen need to dig in and make Abdur-Rahman a non-factor. They don’t want Buchert to have to win this thing by himself.
*Resolve and resiliency. It took an epic win in a seesaw battle against North Penn for LaSalle to even be here, so if there’s any team that can roll with the punches and throw some back, it’s the Explorers. The potential exists for another up-and-down football game Saturday, so NA needs to show the same character it has throughout its playoff run.
For recaps of all three state championship games, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports next week!