By Matt Popchock
The 2010 season didn’t go exactly as anticipated for North Allegheny. That is to say, Art Walker’s Tigers went further than many anticipated.
A loss to arch-rival North Hills that forged a split of the Northern Seven Conference title was the only blemish on the Tigers’ record entering the WPIAL Class AAAA Playoffs, which they opened with resounding victories over Peters Township and Bethel Park.
That set the stage for arguably the most emotional victory of Walker’s high school coaching career, and arguably the turning point of N.A.’s season. His current team stunned his former employer, top-seeded Pittsburgh Central Catholic, the team he led to a perfect record and PIAA championship in 2004, and a team primed to make a similar run last year.
The hard-earned 17-7 win at Fox Chapel’s Burke Stadium spurned North Allegheny on to the North Shore for its first Class AAAA Final since a blowout loss to New Castle at Three Rivers Stadium in 1998, and the Tigers exorcised those demons with an equally inspired 21-14 win over Woodland Hills for just the second WPIAL football championship in school history.
Not even the loss of Quad-A rushing leader Alex Papson to a collarbone injury against the Wolverines could deter N.A. from going on to capture its first state championship in 20 years with a convincing romp over LaSalle.
Now the Tigers must adjust to life without Papson on a permanent basis, which is one of the major roadblocks separating them from another trip to Heinz Field. He graduated as the most prolific running back in program history and the fourth 4,000-career yard rusher in WPIAL Class AAAA history.
With the present parity in Quad-A, it’s very hard, even for a team like N.A. that typically boasts a lot of depth and experience, to repeat these days, and the loss of an elite player like Papson really cripples their chances. But in defense of those who stepped up after standing in his shadow throughout the 2010 campaign, the Tigers might still have a very capable backfield, and some tough hogs to block for them.
Senior tailback Vinnie Congedo should get plenty of carries after gaining 379 yards and scoring three touchdowns in limited action, including a crucial 142 yards and two TD’s in the state playoff opener versus State College.
Congedo will be spelled by junior Alex Deciantis, who wore the cape the following week with 97 yards and three TD’s against Cumberland Valley and chipped in 249 total rush yards as a sophomore, averaging over five per run. Even Nick Passodelis, who will also be a senior and can catch out of the backfield, gives N.A. options.
Two-way lineman Rob Kugler may be off to Purdue, but two more players are coming into the district who could give the “O” some oomph in 2011, much like the older son of Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler did in 2010. Former North Hills tailback Isaiah Faulk has transferred into enemy territory for his senior season. Meanwhile, junior QB Mack Leftwich, after seeing limited time as a sophomore at Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, may get to start at N.A. now that his father, Spencer Leftwich, has settled into his new job as an assistant to Pitt head coach Todd Graham.
Hopefully for the Tigers’ sake Leftwich can give them back at least some of the versatility they lost with the graduation of Mike Buchert. Junior receiver Brandon Coniker will see a lot more balls thrown in his direction from Leftwich, or whoever else might get the job; although he only caught three passes for 89 yards and one score in 2010, top targets Dan Slivka and Matt Steinbeck have both graduated.
Coniker can actually do more even more damage as a defensive back, where he posted 39 tackles (29 solo) last year and shared with Steinbeck the team lead in interceptions with four.
This team should still be able to defend the pass pretty well, but the real key for North Allegheny will be its ability to fortify its defensive front, not just without Rob Kugler, but without linebacker Kevin Cope and lineman Justin Haser, who combined for over 200 tackles as seniors. N.A. allowed less than eight points per game last season, making it the most stubborn defense in Quad-A, and the Tigers averaged 3.2 sacks per contest. Its defense was instrumental in wins at Heinz Field and Hersheypark Stadium. That’s what makes the leadership of senior lineman Nate Nachazel, who accounted for ten of the team’s 51 sacks last year, so critical.
Lest we forget, though, Nachazel will have some help in the form of the younger Kugler brother on both sides of the ball. Junior Pat Kugler played such solid ironman football alongside brother Rob he made first team All-Northern Seven Conference as a sophomore on the offensive line and already has 13 Division I offers, including ones from Pitt and Penn State. Furthermore, another all-conference honoree, center Pete Thistle will be back in the trenches, not to mention fellow senior Zach Harvey.
Don’t expect this offense to run quite as smoothly as it did last year, when the Tigers led the classification with an average of 31.6 points per game, largely behind Papson’s running. But if those linemen perform up to par, that will definitely ease the growing pains.
The only other team in the conference that looks poised to cause pains of any kind for North Allegheny is Shaler, the always intense Week 9 game against North Hills not withstanding. Shaler might be fielding one of its best squads in recent history, with more returning starters than any other team in the Northern Seven, though history is certainly on the Tigers’ side. They’ve owned their “other” next-door neighbors for ages, so the burden of proof is on the Titans.
Beyond that, N.A. must overcome the fact that, unlike teams such as Upper St. Clair and Pittsburgh Central Catholic, both of whom are expected to challenge for district gold, they no longer have premier players at the skill positions, despite all three appearing to have the physical toughness of a champion.
Having a whopping 96 players on its preseason roster goes a long way toward explaining why North Allegheny will remain one of the more competitive teams in Quad-A for years to come, and gives the program an advantage over pretty much any other in the WPIAL. Depth won’t be an issue, to say the least, but if the new starters on offense don’t mature quickly enough, the Tigers’ relative lack of experience could end their title defense.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)