By Matt Popchock
With two weeks left in the 2011 WPIAL regular season, 26 playoff spots have been officially occupied across all four classifications…which means a whopping 38 are still up for grabs.
As the temperature plummets, the intensity will only pick up with all those trips to the postseason, along with conference championships, on the line beginning this weekend.
Here’s a quick look at some key games in Week 8, starting, as always, with our “UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Game of the Week”:
GAME OF THE WEEK:
RINGGOLD RAMS (5-0, 6-1) AT FRANKLIN REGIONAL PANTHERS (5-0, 7-0)
(CLASS AAA, KEYSTONE CONFERENCE)
FRANKLIN REGIONAL STADIUM, FRANKLIN REGIONAL HIGH SCHOOL
Pre-game coverage with MSA Sports’ Don Rebel begins at 6:00 on 93.7 The Fan; kickoff at 7:00 with Lanny Frattare on play-by-play, Bob Orkwis on color commentary
This is a classic matchup of old versus new. The old Keystone Conference was often scoffed at by those who follow high school football around these parts, and it went practically an entire decade without a playoff win. The “new” Keystone Conference, a byproduct of the WPIAL’s biennial realignment, boasts these two new additions, both of whom look poised to make some noise in the Class AAA bracket. Greg Botta is one of the most respected veteran coaches in the district, having led Franklin Regional to an improbable state championship in 2005. Matt Humbert is one of the youngest head football coaches in the district, and he’s already earned respect with the abrupt turnaround at Ringgold, a program once wrought by inner turmoil that is suddenly coming off a perfect regular season and conference title. So will there be a “new” champion, or will it be the same “old” story? Percy “Quad” Law, the dual-threat quarterback who leads the Rams, will have to gut one out as he battles leg soreness. Nevertheless, with 1,133 rush yards and 13 total TD’s–an average of nearly 15 yards a carry–Law, the No. 8 rusher in the WPIAL, is a threat to score every time he touches the rock. The Panthers will counter with one of the toughest defensive fronts in the district; it has allowed 25 total points in 2011, and only Clairton has allowed fewer. They will also counter with Dane Brown, one of the hardest-working running backs in western PA, who ranks No. 4 in the WPIAL with 1,256 yards and is the district’s leading scorer with 23 total TD’s. Ringgold outclassed Franklin Regional 23-14 at Joe Montana Stadium last year, but this one may come down to whether the Rams can withstand the Panthers’ team toughness.
Check out my live blog from Franklin Regional Stadium later tonight!
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH:
NORTHERN SEVEN CONFERENCE:
North Allegheny (4-0, 7-0) at Shaler (3-1, 5-2) (7:30) – The Titans stubbed their toe at Seneca Valley last week, so now they must rewrite a sorry script and defeat a team that has won 24 of the last 25 meetings in order to grab a share of the conference crown. Two of the top five QB’s in Quad-A will be on display; Ryan Mincher leads Shaler with 968 yards and 11 TD’s, while transfer Mack Leftwich has amassed 1,378 yards–third-most in the WPIAL–and 14 touchdowns for the Tigers. But this one will really be a battle of attrition, as running back J.P. Holtz will try to do damage against N.A.’s linemen, one of the finest groupings in the state, and a group that has given quality protection to Vinnie Congendo and his committee of running backs. North Allegheny has supplanted Central Catholic as MaxPreps’ No. 1 team in PA, and ranks 36th nationally entering Friday. This game can be seen live on ROOT Sports at 7:30, with pre-game coverage beginning at 7:00.
Seneca Valley (2-2, 5-2) at North Hills (2-2, 4-3) (7:30) – It’s senior night at Martorelli Stadium, and any way you look at it, this is the most important one the Indians have had in a while. They need a win over this confident Raiders squad to avoid the very real possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1998 (they travel to Neuman Stadium to meet N.A. in Week 9), when proud alumnus Mr. High School Sports was, literally, Mr. High School Sports. North Hills’ defense will have its work cut out trying to contain Jordan Brown, the top passer in the WPIAL with 1,525 yards, 13 TD’s, and over 100 completions. Tyler Reddick, with his 546 yards and five touchdowns, leads a balanced running attack for the home team.
BIG EIGHT CONFERENCE:
West Mifflin (4-1, 6-1) at Chartiers Valley (4-1, 5-2) (7:00) – Thomas Jefferson owns an inside track on the conference title, but this game is still quite crucial for playoff seeding. The winner of this one gets home-field advantage in the first round, while the loser, depending on who it is, would need either Trinity or South Park to also lose in order to punch its ticket to the postseason. The Titans face the daunting task of keeping Wayne Capers, who has thrown for 761 yards and seven TD’s while racking up nearly 1,100 total yards of offense, between the hashes. West Mifflin’s Shamar Greene can also run, and he’s in the Class AAA top ten with 784 yards and ten TD’s, though the Colts have a somewhat secret weapon in Michael Boulos, who averages 6.5 yards per carry.
Montour (3-2, 5-2) at West Allegheny (4-1, 5-2) (7:00) – Not a lot of people were talking about the Indians at the beginning of the year, despite the unpredictable nature of the Parkway Conference, but they are now. Bob Palko’s team stands in the way of the Spartans, one of the preseason favorites, finally bringing some certainty to their future. Montour is in pretty good shape as far as tiebreakers are concerned, but West A needs the least amount of help (a win in Week 8) to survive. The big question for the visitors is whether quarterback Dillon Buechel can outgun his counterpart, Dylan Bongiorni. Buechel ranks second in Class AAA and eighth in the WPIAL with 1,193 yards and 17 TD’s, and has completed almost 70% of his attempts–plus, he has the ever-dangerous Julian Durden in the backfield to balance that attack. Bongiorni leads the wildcat offense for West A, having accumulated over 1,100 offensive yards and 13 touchdowns. The Indians’ defense has allowed under 13 points per game.
Seton-LaSalle (5-0, 7-0) at South Fayette (4-1, 5-2) (7:30) – Sparks typically fly whenever these offensively potent teams meet, and though the Rebels were pegged as the team to beat out of this conference to begin the season, the WPIAL Class AA champions have served notice they won’t give up that Century crown without a fight. The Rebels can take it from the Lions with a victory on the road in Week 8, and they pose a very balanced threat with running back Kevin Hart and quarterback Luke Brumbaugh–who knows a thing or two about South Fayette football. The prolific Hart has run for 814 yards and 19 touchdowns, the fourth-most in the district, while Luke, younger brother of former South Fayette QB Christian, can keep defenses off balance, as evidenced by 869 yards and nine TD’s. The Lions need a big effort from John Lerda, who has thrown for 917 yards and 14 TD’s and has shown he can win big games in crunch time, and hope LaSalle’s secondary has trouble keeping up with Zach Challingsworth, one of the district’s finest receivers.
Beaver Falls (5-1, 6-1) at Ellwood City (4-2, 5-2) (7:30) – If Mr. High School Sports weren’t already taking the long trip down Route 30 to watch two of the best rushers in the WPIAL go toe to toe, he would be sorely tempted to merge onto the Parkway West, head down to Lincoln High School, and essentially do the same thing. The winner of this battle for second place in the MAC will clinch a playoff berth, though the loser can also do so with some scoreboard-watching (if Laurel and Riverside both lose in Week 8, Ellwood City is in regardless of this outcome). Trey Halls leads the Tigers’ attack with 1,025 yards rushing, which ranks third in Class AA, and 15 total touchdowns, while everywhere man Kyle Crawford poses the biggest threat to Beaver Falls. He’s racked up 916 yards on the ground, averaging nearly eight per carry, and 16 TD’s, making him one of the leading scorers in the classification. If those two cancel out one another, then Beaver Falls needs quarterback Wesley Nesmith, who has been very productive while tossing for 894 yards and ten touchdowns, to be an x-factor.
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (4-3, 4-3) at Avonworth (5-1, 6-1) (7:30) – The runaway success of the new Central Valley program was the big story in WPIAL football in 2010, so the similarly vast improvements made at Sacred Heart, though it probably won’t challenge for a championship, also bear repeating. This is a program built almost from scratch, a program that won only one game (a non-conference contest) in 2010, its first year of existence, but already, the Chargers have a real shot at the playoffs. They can take charge of their destiny with an upset in this game, which will probably come down to which tailback outshines the other. With 1,245 yards rushing, which ranks sixth in the WPIAL (not to mention 16 touchdowns), Isiah Neely has put OLSH on his back. Avonworth, which allows just over ten points per game and simply needs a win to punch their playoff ticket, needs to contain him, and the ‘Lopes need some big numbers from Ricky Lawniczak, who has been an effective playmaker and table-setter for that offense with 698 rush yards, over six yards per carry, and eight touchdowns.
Northgate (4-2, 5-2) at North Catholic (3-3, 4-3) (7:30) - Each of these teams, even in victory, need some help in Week 9 to solidify their postseason status, but it is truly fascinating that the once-lowly Flames are in the enviable position of needing less help to qualify. The rise of Northgate can be attributed to quarterback Jon Girvin, who has quietly climbed his way to seventh in the WPIAL with 1,197 yards in the air to complement an impressive 16 touchdowns. The Trojans’ offense sputtered against OLSH in Week 7, and it needs Girvin’s counterpart, dual-threat signal-caller Brandt Gribbin to get them back on track if they wish not to leave their playoff fate to the football gods. Gribbin ranks fifth in Class A with 983 passing yards and ten touchdowns. He’s also run for over 300 yards and averaged six per scramble, so if he gets in a rhythm, and North Catholic’s own defense can be assertive, the Eastern Conference playoff picture could get a lot more confusing…
Perry (4-0, 5-2) at Brashear (5-0, 5-1) (7:00) – The two teams in the League thought to be the two best annually are indeed on a collision course, with Week 8′s winner likely putting itself in position for the regular season title. Darrell Carson leads the Commodores and the League with 872 yards passing and nine touchdowns, while Adam Lynch ranks third with 509 for the Bulls, but he needs to protect the pigskin better against this defense. Still, Lynch is dangerous outside the pocket, and if he gets some mutual support from his defense, which ranks second in the League at 11.7 points allowed per game, Perry could be in for a battle.
Once again, be sure to check out the “Mr. High School Sports” blog on 937thefan.com for more Week 8 coverage, and tune into “The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services High School Football Show,” brought to you by ROOT Sports and hosted by John Phillips, Saturday at 7:00 A.M. on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan for a complete recap of Friday’s action!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)