Mr. High School Sports couldn’t get through another season without one final cliche: two out of three ain’t bad. He’d like to give a hearty congratulations to the Clairton Bears and North Allegheny Tigers for making him proud and capturing gold at the PIAA Football Championships at Hershey Park Stadium, and congratulations are also in order to the South Fayette Lions on their remarkable run…and to the Central Valley Warriors on a storybook campaign of their own. Before turning the page on 2010 I have a few last reflections to share on a fascinating two days in central PA that set the stage beautifully for 2011…
PIAA CLASS A CHAMPIONSHIP:
Clairton 36, Taylor Riverside 30
SUMMARY: What most thought would be a fun-filled ending to a dream season turned into a nightmare for Clairton, which fell behind 24-0 in the second quarter after two touchdown bombs from Corey Talerico. But champions overcome, and the Bears overcame what would have been an insurmountable deficit to any other team by racking up 36 unanswered points, 20 of them before halftime. Desimon Green (pictured above) made big plays on offense, while the Clairton defense forced three picks en route to back-to-back state titles, thereby avoiding what might have been the biggest upset in recent PIAA football history.
THE HERO: Clairton quarterback/defensive end Desimon Green. Taking nothing away from what he did against WPIAL competition, the leadership he has brought to this year’s Bears squad couldn’t have been more apparent last Friday. He completed only four passes, but they went for 135 yards and two TD’s, including the game-winner, to say nothing of his two two-point conversions. Plus, after giving up a long touchdown run, the Clairton defense ultimately allowed just 33 rush yards.
TURNING POINT: Green’s two-yard touchdown run that finally put Clairton on the board with 4:29 left in the first half. It was not etched in stone that the Bears would avoid a stunning loss at that moment, but it was exactly the spark they needed, and with all the talent on that sideline and knowing all they had already accomplished, you got the sense that, from that point on, the game would be completely different.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I hate to say I told you so, but in my state championship preview, I more or less did. I tried to “warn” Clairton about complacency in a game of this magnitude, but for much of the first half it appeared the Bears simply punched the clock and waited for the gold medals to be handed to them, and needless to say, the Vikings didn’t wait with them. Leave it to Desimon Green, the most scrutinized player on his team, to get the Bears back into it. If he remains steadfast in his commitment to Pitt, it will be a blessing to new coach Michael Haywood. Four years from now Haywood, assuming he’s still around, will realize how lucky he was to have him. I’m not surprised at the outcome, because if any WPIAL team had it in them to pull off such an epic comeback, it is Clairton, and the one individual most capable of leading that charge was Green. There is a rumor that his coach, Tom Nola, might retire, and for that I wouldn’t blame him. Although giving up 30 points to this team might make me reconsider its place in WPIAL history, it is definitely the best one in Clairton history. The best time to walk away from a job is when you still like what you’re doing, so this is the perfect time for Nola to call it quits. With this team he has most likely peaked, and considering how politics sometimes ruins high school sports for those involved, it would be nice for a successful coach to be able to go out on a positive note for a change. That being said, if Nola were to leave, the Clairton dynasty would be in big trouble. Reloading after graduation will be tough enough, but I can’t stress enough the value of competent coaching at that level, and Nola has been as important to the Bears’ title run as any of his players.
PIAA CLASS AA CHAMPIONSHIP:
West Catholic 50, South Fayette 14
SUMMARY: West Catholic broke open a 7-7 game in the second quarter with a staggering 29-point outburst, putting the Burrs on track for their first-ever PIAA championship and erasing the bitter memory of a double-overtime loss in the title contest two years ago. Christian Brumbaugh and the South Fayette offense did move the ball in that frame, but Jeff Davis was never able to get his motor going, and West Catholic had too many answers, many of them coming from Brumbaugh’s counterpart, Anthony Reid, who threw for two TD’s and ran for another before halftime. In a disappointing twist to an otherwise historic season for Joe Rossi’s Lions, whose 15-game winning streak came to an end, a late touchdown run by Josh Mathis enacted the mercy rule.
THE HERO: West Catholic running back David Williams. Though it was a balanced attack by the Burrs that proved to be South Fayette’s undoing, the sophomore, who had repeatedly come off the bench and contributed throughout the postseason, ran the ball exceptionally and kept Brumbaugh off the field, going for 183 yards and pair of scores on 14 carries. With his help his team set a PIAA Championship record for offensive yardage (530), and he made the game easier to manage for Reid. Yeoman’s work by Williams set the table for the quarterback’s three TD’s late in the first half, putting the Lions in a hole even they did not have the talent to escape.
TURNING POINT: Williams’ 81-yard touchdown run up the middle that tied the game with two minutes remaining in the first quarter. After Brumbaugh had staked South Fayette to an early 7-0 lead, West Catholic answered back immediately thanks to their reserve tailback. This play set the tone for the Burrs’ offense gradually taking control of the game, and it set the tone for a day on which West Catholic owned the lined of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Much was said about the toughness of West Catholic’s linemen, and yes, their contributions should not go unnoticed, but you really have to give the Burrs credit for successfully fighting fire with fire. They beat a finesse team that relies upon the athleticism of its skill players by being more athletic, and South Fayette just couldn’t keep up with their speed. It’s a shame the Lions’ historic run to Hershey ended on such a sour note, because Christian Brumbaugh is the kind of player who is easy to root for, and because the season was already a storybook campaign. State gold would have been a fitting conclusion. South Fayette got its much-desired revenge on Aliquippa–and at Heinz Field, no less. In the state playoffs Brumbaugh beat the most prolific quarterback in PIAA history, and regardless of what went down last Saturday, he will go down as one of western Pennsylvania’s all-time greats, not just for his career numbers, but for helping end a 46-year title drought. Furthermore, in the time it takes me to write this, he’ll probably break another passing record. But perhaps the biggest feel-good story was that of Bill Faraci, father of lineman Nick Faraci, who couldn’t attend games due to ongoing cancer treatments, but did get to hold the WPIAL trophy and make the trip to Hershey. I feel bad he didn’t get to see his son win in person, but it felt good to see Nick and his teammates rally around the man all year long and deliver on the promise of winning district gold in his honor. In the meantime, my hat’s off to the Burrs, who took the swagger from an outstanding team and showed just how tough the east is in Class AA.
PIAA CLASS AAAA CHAMPIONSHIP:
North Allegheny 21, LaSalle 0
SUMMARY: The Tigers outplayed one of the scariest Quad-A teams in the state with power football at its finest. All of their offensive yardage in the first half came on the ground, and they kept LaSalle off balance by spreading the ball around; Mike Buchert scrambled all over creation and his two scoring runs were probably the two biggest plays of the game, while Matt Steinbeck (pictured left) spelled his quarterback and ate up plenty of yardage himself, including a late first-half TD that put the Explorers on their heels. They had the firepower to make this game a difficult one for NA despite falling behind early, but once again, North Allegheny’s defense was in rare form, generating five turnovers and preventing LaSalle’s running game from matching the Tigers’ efforts.
THE HERO: North Allegheny running back Matt Steinbeck. Ever since Alex Papson’s collarbone injury at Heinz Field ended his season, the story of this team has been different players on offense taking charge of the Tigers, and last Saturday it was Steinbeck’s turn. He led all tailbacks with 120 yards on 20 carries, and the 28-yard touchdown he scored on a reverse in the final minute of the first half proved to be too much for LaSalle to overcome. The most successful teams are the ones that can run the ball from start to finish, and Steinbeck helped NA prove it.
TURNING POINT: Brendan Coniker’s 30-yard option pass to fellow wide receiver Dan Slivka that set up the game’s final touchdown. As badly as things had gone for LaSalle to that point, they were only down by two scores with plenty of time left in the second half, and they had the weapons to get back in the game in a hurry. Had they held North Allegheny after an intentional grounding call pushed them back to LaSalle’s 31-yard line, it might have given the Explorers a chance to tip the scales in their favor. But the gadget play worked, and giving the Tigers a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line at that point was a back-breaker.
FINAL THOUGHTS: What a run by Art Walker’s Tigers. Before the season started I pegged Mount Lebanon as perhaps the team to beat in their classification, and after stubbing their toe at Martorelli Stadium in Week 9 the Tigers took down probably the two best Quad-A teams in the WPIAL other than the Blue Devils. Frankly, I believe the turning pointing of their entire campaign came in the semifinals, when they knocked off top-ranked Pittsburgh Central Catholic. The Vikings, like the Tigers, had a balanced offense and an outstanding defense that no one could solve, but once NA pulled off the upset, it seemed as though they replaced Central as the new team of destiny. I don’t know if you’d ever get Art Walker to admit it, but the former Central head coach was probably more fired up and more well-prepared for that game than any other, for obvious reasons. Of the three area teams that survived the road to Hershey Park Stadium, his team had the most to prove and did so. They proved they were more than just Alex Papson. A number of kids made that state championship possible, ones like Rob Kugler. His family chose to move to the North Allegheny School District over North Hills when father Sean was hired by the Steelers. I don’t know if Rob would’ve made the Indians that much better, but what he brought to this year’s Tigers squad was evident. Throughout their march to PIAA gold that offensive line was at the top of its game night in and night out. You or I could have run for a hundred yards against LaSalle the way they played. North Allegheny, although certainly one of the preseason top ten, was not the most likely champion in Quad-A, but what they did against the WPIAL’s best and some incredibly stiff competition from the east was no accident. Savor the flavor, Wexford, because with the senior leadership this team is graduating, it’ll be an enormous challenge to do it again.
Because this is Mr. High School Sports’ last official football post of 2010, it’s time for him to give out some props. Special thanks to 93.7 The Fan sports director Jeff Hathhorn and marketing director Nik Del Greco for their support, and to our Post-Gazette High School Football Show co-hosts, Mike White and Don Rebel, for their inspiration. Special thanks also to our high school sports sponsors, to the rest of our friends at the Post-Gazette and at MaxPreps, and all the rest who cover high school football here and everywhere. I literally could not do this without you.
The first round of two-a-days will be here before you know it…but in the meantime, be sure to keep it right here and follow the winter sports season with Mr. High School Sports on 937thefan.com!