By Matt Popchock
First of all, I owe some people an apology…
Upon further review, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, whose Class A program had a shot at the playoffs in just its second year of existence, has been eliminated from contention by virtue of an inferior tiebreaker score. Earlier this week, I reported otherwise.
If you’re rooting for the Chargers this weekend, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But special thanks just the same to Twitter follower @BucFever422 for catching my mistake, and additional thanks to the fine folks at the MSA Sports Network for corroborating him.
In my defense, I know for a fact I’m not the only member of the media who had to make such a correction this week, which leads me to my salient point about how confusing the WPIAL Football Playoff system can truly be. I’ll further elaborate on that opinion in this blog at a later time.
At any rate, there are still, fittingly, nine playoff berths on the table in Week 9. Since this is the final week of regular season play–as far as most teams are concerned–we’ll take a little different tack with our preview this week and focus on those games that affect the playoff picture. But we begin, as always, with our “UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Game of the Week”:
GAME OF THE WEEK:
MOUNT LEBANON BLUE DEVILS (4-0, 6-2) AT UPPER ST. CLAIR PANTHERS (4-0, 7-1)
(CLASS AAAA, GREAT SOUTHERN CONFERENCE)
PANTHER STADIUM, UPPER ST. CLAIR HIGH SCHOOL
Pre-game coverage with MSA Sports’ Don Rebel begins at 6:00 on 93.7 The Fan; kickoff at 7:30 with Lanny Frattare on play-by-play, Bob Orkwis on color commentary
It’s a winner-take-all battle for the Great Southern Conference title. Lebo edged USC 14-10 last season, but this year Pitt recruit Dakota Conwell is a year older, a year wiser, and a year more agile. Conwell has shredded opposing defenses to the tune of 1,480 offensive yards, including 762 in the air, and 14 total touchdowns. Containing him is priority one for the Blue Devils’ defense, and priority two is getting typically stellar production from Cornell recruit Luke Hagy, the WPIAL’s second-leading rusher, who enters this contest with 1,517 yards and 20 touchdowns. As was the case a year ago, both teams boast Division I talent up front, notably Mount Lebanon lineman and Wisconsin recruit Arthur Goldberg, brother Max Goldberg, and Upper St. Clair’s tandem of Northwestern recruits, Ian Park and Jack Schwaba, so once again, we could be in for another war of attrition in which one big play may be enough to win. USC coach Jim Render, the third-winningest coach in state history, is going for career victory No. 351; he’s second among active PIAA coaches in wins. This game can also be seen on ROOT Sports, with an encore presentation airing at midnight.
Check out my live blog from Panther Stadium Friday night:
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH:
GREAT SOUTHERN CONFERENCE:
Bethel Park (2-2, 3-5) at Baldwin (1-3, 4-4) (7:30)
Canon-McMillan (0-4, 0-8) at Peters Township (1-3, 3-5) (7:30)
Okay, strap on your seat belts, because this analysis is a bumpy one:
If Baldwin beats Bethel Park and Peters Township beats Canon-McMillan, third place will be determined by tiebreaker points and fourth place by head-to-head. Tiebreaker points are: Bethel Park 0, Baldwin -20, Peters Township -20. If all three teams finish at -10, then a coin flip would determine third place and head-to-head would determine fourth place. If Baldwin and Canon-McMillan win, Baldwin is third and Bethel Park is fourth. If Bethel Park and Peters Township win, Bethel Park is third and Peters Township is fourth. If Bethel Park and Canon-McMillan win, Bethel Park is third, while tiebreaker points will decide fourth place. Tiebreaker points are: Baldwin -20, Peters Township -20, Canon-McMillan -40. If all three teams finish at -30, then a coin flip will determine fourth place.
See what I mean?
Anyway, Bethel Park will try to expose Baldwin’s secondary with the arm of Anthony Cinello, who has thrown for 872 yards and five touchdowns while completing 58% of his passes. But the Hawks also need more consistency on defense than usual, because Dorian Brown is quite dangerous when he gets the rock. He just needs 27 yards for 1,000, and he will be the folcrum of the Highlanders’ attack. Meanwhile, the Big Macs are one of three Quad-A teams looking to avoid a winless campaign, and now they face the daunting task of containing Peters Township tailback Andrew Erenberg, a multi-sport star who leads the Indians with 1,127 rush yards and 14 TD’s.
There’s a lot still at stake in this classification; for example, four teams are tied for the last spot in the Keystone Conference. However, we’re going to focus on a different part of Class AAA, where the amazing high school career of Pitt recruit Rushel Shell, the all-time leading rusher in district history and now one of the top five in PIAA history, may or may not come to an end Friday night…
West Allegheny (4-2, 5-3) at Hopewell (3-3, 5-3) (7:00)
Blackhawk (3-3, 5-3) at New Castle (3-3, 4-4) (7:30)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you can tell how good this conference is from year to year when you look at the quality of the teams that don’t make the playoffs. Having said that, here’s the situation. Hopewell can clinch a playoff spot with a win. If that is the case, they will finish third (Hopewell wins three-way tiebreakers with West Allegheny and Blackhawk, as well as West Allegheny and New Castle, and could finish second if Montour loses to Moon, making it a four-way tie; in that case, it would be Hopewell-Montour-West Allegheny). The winner of Blackhawk-New Castle can clinch a playoff spot only if West Allegheny beats Hopewell.
Can Bob Palko’s wildcat offense keep pace with Shell? Hopewell’s bell cow leads the WPIAL with 1,548 rushing yards to complement 17 touchdowns. He’s going for his 37th consecutive 100-yard game, just one shy of tying Billy Sims’ national record. Quarterback Dylan Bongiorni, who has completed 60% of his passes for 751 yards and six scores, needs to be efficient, and he needs to run like a maniac if the Indians wish to play spoiler. Meanwhile, Blackhawks needs the kind of defensive effort it put forth against Hopewell, not to mention a big night from quarterback Chandler Kincade. The pressure is on the Cougars’ secondary against John Matarazzo, who ranks fifth in the district with 1,505 yards passing to go with his 21 TD’s, and Marcus Carter, the top receiver in the WPIAL, who has accounted for over 600 of those yards.
Several teams are battling for the last playoff spot in the classification, though two in particular have the inside track entering Week 9…
Keystone Oaks (3-3, 4-4) at Seton-LaSalle (6-0, 8-0) (7:00)
Keystone Oaks and Steel Valley (2-4, 4-4) stand the best chance of survival; Quaker Valley would need to pull a major upset of South Fayette and get help to qualify. Steel Valley visits South Allegheny. If Keystone Oaks wins, they are fourth. If the Golden Eagles lose, they will still clinch if Steel Valley also loses. Steel Valley needs a win and a Keystone Oaks loss to get in.
K.O. has the weapons to give the Century Conference champions a game. With 1,251 yards and 15 TD’s, Matt Buckley has been one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the district, and Dale Klobichur is a thousand-yard rusher (depending on which source you check). It won’t be easy to find traction against the Rebels’ defense, though, which allows under six points per game, ranking second-best in Class AA behind Beaver–and ahead of Aliquippa. Furthermore, tailback Kevin Hart is a scoring machine with 22 TD’s, putting him among the top five in the WPIAL, and Luke Brumbaugh has really grown confident as that team’s quarterback, having amassed 969 yards and ten TD’s. (By the way, Luke’s younger brother Brett will make his first-ever start at QB for South Fayette against Quaker Valley due to an injury to John Lerda.)
Greensburg C.C. (7-0, 8-0) at Jeannette (7-0, 8-0) (7:30) – These two rivals, who will play for the outright conference title at McKee Stadium, have a couple things in common. They both are allowing less than 12 points per game, and they’re both going to rely on quarterback play Friday night. Jeannette’s top Division I prospect, Demetrius Cox, has racked up over 1,000 total yards of offense, including 751 passing, and 11 scores. Bobby Noble, who will be gutting it out for GCC despite an arm injury, has thrown for 800 yards and ten TD’s. If they cancel each other out, the key to this game may be how well the Jayhawks can contain Jordan McRae, who has run for 943 yards and 16 touchdowns. Either way, both these schools will be worth keeping an eye on once the playoffs begin.
Avonworth (6-1, 7-1) at Northgate (4-3, 5-3) (7:30)
North Catholic (4-3, 5-3) at Bishop Canevin (7-0, 8-0) (7:30)
North Catholic wins the head-to-head tiebreaker if both teams win. However if they lose, they drop into a tie with Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, and tiebreaker points will then determine fourth. Current tiebreaker points are: North Catholic +13, Northgate +14, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart -4. Once again, it has recently been determined that OLSH has no chance to catch up.
Here in Greentree, the spotlight will be on the quarterbacks, as Bishop Canevin goes for its second perfect regular season since becoming a WPIAL football member in 1975; the Crusaders also went wire-to-wire in 2005. Kevin Mechas needs to find slot receiver Bobby Gustine, one of the top playmakers in Class A, early and often, Gustine has nearly 1,000 all-purpose yards and ten total touchdowns. North Catholic, which allows just over ten points per game, needs to put heat in Mechas’ kitchen, and Brandt Gribbin, who has thrown for 983 yards and ten TD’s, needs to make things happen with his arm and his feet for the Trojans, which won’t be easy against one of the best defenses in the district. Meanwhile, for Northgate, its postseason hopes rest on the shoulders of another QB, Jon Girvin, who ranks fourth in the WPIAL with 1,522 passing yards and is among the area’s top scorers with 20 TD’s. Avonworth’s defense allows just 10.3 points per game, however, and the ‘Lopes may be able to control the ball with their running game, led by Ricky Lawniczak, who has amassed 773 yards through Week 8.
Be sure to revisit the “Mr. High School Sports” blog again on Monday, and listen to “The MSA Sports Football Pairings Show,” live from the Radisson Hotel in Greentree and hosted by Don Rebel, that night from 7:00 to 8:00 P.M. on 93.7 The Fan, as we begin our coverage of the 2011 postseason!
(Special thanks to the MSA Sports Network for its contributions to this post.)
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)