By Matt Popchock
A few final thoughts on Week 3 of the WPIAL football season, and a few preliminary ones on Week 4 (and beyond)…
*One of my most memorable movie lines comes from Jamie Kennedy in the Wes Craven horror film ‘Scream 2′: “Nothing like a funeral to bring a family together.” It seems like the Gateway football team has been playing for each other much more than usual after the funeral of Darrell Turner, a kind of unity Terry Smith told me about before the Gateway Kickoff Classic. Gateway worked its butt off against a Bishop McDevitt team thought to be the best in the state within its own classification, it out-toughed Penn Hills despite getting outplayed for much of that game, and last Friday, it blasted a Latrobe squad that maybe, just maybe, people thought might be on the rise.
Zach Collucci, a 14-year-old football player at Latrobe, was killed by an oncoming car last Saturday. He was the younger brother of lineman Dylan Collucci, the team’s top Division I prospect, who plans to honor Zach by wearing his No. 77 in college. In the meantime, I’m interested to see if the Wildcats, moving forward, elevate their game and use this tragedy as a rallying point the same way Gateway seems to have done for Turner.
*Speaking of Latrobe, despite Gateway putting the 2-0 Wildcats in their place, I’m not convinced the Foothills Conference title is the Gators’ to lose. That’s because Ed Stockett is throwing the ball really well for McKeesport.
Okay, fine, laugh. Go ahead, get it out of your system. But you read that correctly. McKeesport is winning by throwing the ball. Ed Stockett racked up 330 yards passing in Week 3 against Connellsville, and he’s completed about 75% of his passes for 669 yards. Heck, that might be as many passing yards as George Smith’s teams got over an entire decade.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to kill George Smith. He was a terrific coach, and there’s something to be said for consistency of strategy. Sticking to his flex-bone offense served McKeesport well for three decades under his tenure. But one of the things that may have been holding the Tigers back against the Gateways of the world is, if you’re married to a certain style of play, trouble arises when you come up against another team that can defend it. Jim Ward has given his offense a “Queer Eye”-style makeover, and it’s operating with much more balance right now. It should make the annual Week 9 bout between the Gators and Tigers even more entertaining than usual…and perhaps more winnable for McKeesport than usual.
*What does the future hold for Rushel Shell, besides eminent wreckage of the WPIAL career rushing record? Set your DVR’s for some appointment television this Friday; Shell will be the guest of CBS Sports recruiting expert Tom Lemming on the latest edition of “The Lemming Report,” which airs Friday at 7:00 P.M. on the CBS Sports Network (check local listings), and is expected to talk about life after Hopewell. I wouldn’t expect a college decision to come out of this, but it should be an intriguing interview, to say the least; Shell is the No. 11 national prospect on Lemming’s top 100.
That’s the same time Shell and the Vikings will kick off against visiting Mount Lebanon, a game in which he is expected to break the record. Assuming all goes according to plan, I do expect Mike Vernillo’s mark to fall, but I do not expect Shell to break 200 yards–and I’m perfectly willing to eat my words in front of Shell himself if he does. Physically, though, Mount Lebanon showed its mettle by shutting down Corey Jones of Penn Hills, one of the top all-around athletes in Quad-A, in Week 3, and the Blue Devils can be awfully tough against the run. Still, if you’ll recall, Lebo tailback Luke Hagy and Shell staged quite a game of “can you top this?” at Mount Lebanon Stadium last year. I wonder if they can top that at Tony Dorsett Stadium on Friday?
*One item that’s making news outside the WPIAL: Hickory and Sharon have issued self-imposed punishments toward the players involved in a game-ending brawl last weekend. One player has been dismissed from his team, and a number have received in-school suspensions, as well as suspensions from football.
The PIAA is supposed to meet Oct. 5 to discuss this, and more punishments could be handed out. I’m hoping the PIAA either vacates the win by Hickory, bans both teams from postseason play, or, best yet, hits these schools in their wallet–preferably some combination of the three. Scholastic sports are becoming more and more about bottom line, so taking money seems to be the most effective way to remind everybody that there’s no place for such idiocy in that environment.
*Another sign that the quality of football around here is improving from last year: the WPIAL has a team in a number of national top 25 polls, including the MaxPreps Freeman (computer-generated) Rankings. Pittsburgh Central Catholic has entered the poll at No. 23 this week. But that spot could be in jeopardy if the Vikings look past Woodland Hills at The Wolvarena this Friday. Offensively the Wolverines have been the most productive team in the Class AAAA Big East Conference, and they’ve allowed just 30 points in three weeks.
Speaking of rankings, Upper St. Clair has fallen out of MaxPreps’ PIAA top ten, down to No. 13, while North Allegheny has moved up to No. 3. Taking nothing away from USC, a team I still like to appear at Heinz Field in November, I have to give a lot of credit to N.A. I knew the Tigers would still be good this year, but I doubted how good they could be considering all the skill players they lost. Last week’s win shows you what a competent coach Art Walker is, and what a deep team that is. N.A. absolutely deserves to still be called a contender.
*On a related note, I look forward to seeing how Upper St. Clair recovers from that loss at Joe P. DiMichela Stadium against West Allegheny. But the Week 4 game I’ve really got my eye on is Rochester’s visit to Sto-Rox. Both teams, not surprisingly, have looked sharp as a tack through three games. However, I’m going to stand by my words on 93.7 The Fan last Saturday morning and take the Vikings. I like their balanced offense, and I like their breadth of college talent on both sides. I really think this could be their year…though to beat Rochester, they may have to out-slug them like they nearly did in last year’s 35-32 thriller.
What other Week 4 games jump out at me? Well, there’s one Saturday night contest that might normally be off my radar, but not this time: a bigger-than-usual MAC showdown, Ellwood City at Beaver, Saturday night at 7:30. It wasn’t that long ago Ellwood City was a team that stunk out loud, but they’re 2-0 in conference, 3-0 overall, and have scored 142 points. Last year’s playoff berth appears to be no accident, though they still need a signature win. Beaver, meanwhile, has opened 2011 with three shutouts in a row, including its opener against a Riverside squad that played hard against Aliquippa in Week 3.
That reminds me…Ellwood City senior receiver Devon Siegfried is a nephew of Pittsburgh Power head coach Chris Siegfried, and when I talked with Coach Siegfried Tuesday (check out the full interview at 937thefan.com), he informed me that a wager has been made with Aliquippa alumnae Mike Washington and Josh Lay, who will play for the Power again this coming season: if the Wolverines upset the Quips (which, if memory serves, has never happened), they’ll wear Ellwood City garb to training camp. I don’t have any stake in this, but hey, that would be kind of funny, right?
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)