By Matt Popchock
Before he continues with his abbreviated–and, therefore, very busy–week, “Mr. High School Sports” has a few last thoughts on the weekend that was in WPIAL football, and a few preliminary ones on the weekend to come:
*A hearty congratulations are in order for former Thomas Jefferson QB/DB Dom DeCicco on making the cut with the Chicago Bears as a linebacker and special teams contributor. As dominant as TJ has been in this sport, it’s that much harder to believe he’ll be its first-ever representative in the NFL. He made a name for himself at Pitt, and clearly did enough of that to make it on the big stage, but the thing I’ll always remember DeCicco for is one of the greatest plays I ever saw in a high school game. It was the 2006 WPIAL Class AAA Semifinals at Elizabeth Forward High School, and TJ, the No. 1 team in the state at the time, was struggling with Moon. Moon was very much in that game late in the fourth quarter, until DeCicco almost seemed to vanish around his own 10 yard line. He proceeded to sweep around the right side, and took off down the sideline like his pants were on fire. Fooled the defense, fooled the announcers (including yours truly), fooled everyone. 90-yard quarterback keeper for a game-clinching touchdown, presumably untouched. I wonder if we’ll see more of that magic on Sundays?
*Once again, the Class A Eastern Conference is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating in the district, maybe even as much as the Parkway Conference in Class AAA. One of the more intriguing Week 1 results, on a night when there were relatively few of those, was Bishop Canevin going on the road and manhandling Avonworth, which I still seriously considered a favorite in that conference. Canevin has an easier matchup this Friday, as the Crusaders take on OLSH, but the ‘Lopes appear to be behind the 8-ball already; they have to visit Springdale, which posted an impressive 14-6 win over North Catholic at J.C. Stone Field in Week 1. The Dynamos’ defense looks like it could present a very stiff challenge.
*Speaking of Springdale, Post-Gazette columnist and longtime friend Gene Collier did a nice piece on Chuck Wagner, who is now into his 19th season with the program, and 47th as a WPIAL football coach. You might say Chuck is the Joe Paterno of high school football in western PA, though quite frankly, I might even put him a notch above that, because not only is he still sharp as a tack at age 76, but he is also as widely respected as ever. As long as he’s alive and kicking, I will consistently look at Springdale as one of the top under-the-radar teams in Class A, if not one of the favorites.
*Another of last Friday’s games that caught my eye was Ambridge’s last-minute 38-30 triumph over Keystone Oaks. The Golden Eagles were playing up, but that program has been generally much more competitive in recent years, so I consider that a very positive step for the Bridgers. Junior quarterback Nick Santiago, who is in his first year as starter and also kicks, did a fine job engineering his team’s comeback outside the pocket with 139 rushing yards. Him not withstanding, Ambridge has 16 of 22 starters from 2010 returning. If they give New Castle a game Friday, the Bridgers may be a team worth paying more attention to in the future.
*Recently on “Seibel, Starkey & Miller,” Joe Starkey and Josh Miller talked about what the start of a new high school football season means to them, and Josh (who, by the way, is helping out Fox Chapel’s coaching staff on special teams this year, in case you hadn’t heard) complained about televised high school games, specifically national ones. To a certain extent, I understand Josh’s eagerness to preserve the innocence of high school sports, because I believe this is one of the last bastions of integrity we have in sports in general. But I think televising games is the least of our worries. It’s a state-of-the-art recruiting vehicle, and it’s a nice reward for the kids, especially those who don’t make a living out of the sport one day. Besides, considering last year was not necessarily a good one for outgoing WPIAL talent, the top football players in this region deserve to get shown in a positive light, and if you watched the Pittsburgh Central Catholic-Archbishop Wood game on Sunday, you know the Four-Letter Network got its money’s worth.
*As long as we’re on the topic of TV, it’s a shame ROOT Sports won’t be around this Friday because of its Pirate commitments, because Aliquippa-Beaver Falls is a game worth broadcasting. Beaver Falls and Super Bowl III hero Joe Namath talked with our own Ron Cook about his return to Reeves Stadium at Geneva College, and this game, with or without celebrities present, is one of the best rivalries in Beaver County, especially now that the “Battle of the Bridge” (Rochester-Monaca) doesn’t exist anymore. In the long run, it’ll probably decide the MAC title, and it could even preview the WPIAL Class AA Final. Aliquippa may be a prohibitive favorite in Class AA again, but Trey Hall of BF would be the best tailback in the county if not for Rushel Shell, so it should be a fun one to follow.
*I really have to wonder if Shaler is going to struggle just to make the playoffs, much less keep up with its lofty expectations, after what I saw happen to that team leading up to Week 1. Head coach Neil Gordon pointed out that as many as 25 kids in his program were dealing with some sort of infirmity entering Friday, which is unbelievable. It’s almost like the way the Pittsburgh Penguins’ potentially historic 2010-11 season was wrecked by injuries. Gordon said he’s never seen anything like it, and the patchwork Penguins are the only real good analogy coming to my mind. Friday’s game against USC was thought to be, at the very least, a possible playoff preview, but given that 49-0 laugher, the Titans may be toast unless they get healthy real soon.
*I’ll get into this more on Friday, but the most attractive non-conference game of Week 2 looks to be Mount Lebanon versus Penn-Trafford. Lebo’s Luke Hagy and P-T’s Manny Simpson are two of the most athletic running backs in western PA, and this contest could be extremely physical. Which others jump out at me? Rochester at Fort Cherry–two explosive offenses. Woodland Hills at North Hills–the Indians are lighter on offense, but they still defend well, and play well at home. Gateway at Penn Hills–emotional neighborhood rivalry, just like Quips-BF.
*One other note on Penn Hills: senior receiver Corey Jones, who racked up over 2,000 all-purpose yards last season, was a good get by Todd Graham this past weekend. I don’t think that school has completely recovered from the departure of the aforementioned Neil Gordon yet, but it still boasts great athletes, and Jones could be one of the best at his position in Quad-A this year.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)