“Mr. High School Sports” – Coaches Upbeat As Playoffs Officially Begin
By Matt Popchock
No one would have been surprised if Terry Totten were a little upset. Not because he is a cantankerous sort, but simply because he wouldn’t have been the first WPIAL football head coach to emerge from a playoff pairings meeting feeling his team had been short-changed.
Pittsburgh Central Catholic was the preseason No. 1 in PIAA Class AAAA. The Vikings ran the table and, at one point, were ranked in the national top 25 by brother website MaxPreps; in fact, the Vikings are still ranked nationally by other media outlets.
But defending state champion North Allegheny, lately ranked ahead of Central Catholic by MaxPreps, also enters the playoffs with a perfect record, winners of 16 in a row, and Art Walker’s Tigers found out at the Radisson Hotel in Greentree Monday evening that they, not the Vikings, are the No. 1 seed in Quad-A.
WPIAL Chief Executive Tim O’Malley said the decision was debated for a good five minutes. However, he also said the final vote of the WPIAL Football Steering Committee to put N.A. at the top was “pretty unanimous.”
“If they’re the two best teams,” O’Malley said afterward, “they’ll see each other at Heinz Field.”
The awarding of the top seeds in Quad-A was probably the most commonly discussed topic by the local media prior to and after Monday’s unveiling of the brackets. Totten, however, isn’t getting too swept up in that debate.
“We’re happy to be in the tournament, and to have another game Friday night,” he said in kind. “We’re ready to go.”
He knows that gold medals aren’t won on paper. Just ask his 2007 squad, which upended local and national darling Gateway in one of the most amazing WPIAL Football Championship games ever played.
Conversely, nothing seemed to stand between his team and Heinz Field last year, until the Vikings, in a Semifinal game, were stymied by eventual champion N.A.
“Hopefully they’ll remember how bad that felt, and have it set in their minds that they don’t want to experience that again,” Totten said.
Walker, who led North Allegheny to the state title last fall and, oddly enough, did the same at Central six years earlier, sure isn’t looking a gift horse in the mouth either.
“We know we can’t control that,” Walker said of this year’s playoff seedings. “All we can do is get our kids ready to play football. But if you look at how consistent we’ve been, we’d certainly like to think we’ve earned it.”
Yes, Coach, you’ve put it succinctly. The 2011 Tigers seem not to have lost a step despite significant roster turnover. Some might argue they’re better than the 2010 team, which won gold at Hershey despite not having the services of former 2,000-yard rusher Alex Papson.
“Every year is different. That’s the thing you always have to remember about high school football,” Walker added. “We’ve [executed], stayed healthy, and hopefully the ball bounces our way again.”
Consistency is not something that eluded Thomas Jefferson until recently. The Jaguars have reached five consecutive Class AAA Finals and won three straight until back-to-back Semifinal losses in 2009 and 2010 to eventual champions West Allegheny and Central Valley, respectively. Now, after a loss to West Mifflin that snapped a 37-game conference winning streak, TJ finds itself with an unfamiliar No. 6 seed as it prepares to face Greensburg-Salem.
Still, head coach Bill Cherpak is keeping an open mind, like the rest of us, when he looks at this year’s bracket.
“Obviously, in Triple-A, I think there are two or three teams that are heavy favorites, but you never know. Someone could sneak into [the championship game], so we’ll see.”
How anxious are the Jaguars to be an under-the-radar finalist, when, for several years, they were an assumed one?
“If the game was today, I don’t think they’d be too disappointed,” Cherpak chuckled. “That last game, we didn’t play great, so we want to get back out there, and prove it to ourselves.”
Sto-Rox head coach Ron Butschle is a little bit happier about the way his team’s regular season ended: in perfection. It was the first 9-0 campaign ever by the Vikings, who continue to enjoy success since moving down to Class A.
“I think the expectations have been higher because of all the kids we have on the team with Division I scholarships, but I think overall, as a team, we’ve really come together as a group since last year,” Butschle said.
“We’ve improved in a lot of different ways, on and off the field. I think they’ve learned that you can’t take for granted that there’s going to be a next week.”
If there were ever someone well-versed in the concept of living every moment, it’s Springdale head coach Chuck Wagner. He’s been coaching in the WPIAL for over half a century, and clearly he’s not tired of coming to these meetings.
“You get to see a lot of people you haven’t seen, a lot of very good friends, and great competitors,” Wagner said. “It’s just an exciting evening.”
He didn’t expect to face Monessen in the First Round. Nevertheless, his ninth-seeded Dynamos will indeed head to the Mon Valley to take on the eighth-seeded Greyhounds. But how in the world can they stop the Clairton juggernaut, who would almost certainly be their next opponent?
“Part of [playoff success] is rising to the occasion in big games, and we’ve been fortunate enough to do that,” he said. “Right now, though, we’ll just worry about Monessen.”
If surviving the Eastern Conference, one of the toughest in the district, doesn’t get that team ready, it’s hard to fathom what will.
“We’ve got some very good teams in our conference, and some pretty damn good ones that are staying at home also. We hope to represent them well in the playoffs, we think we have in the past, and that’s what we plan to do here.”
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)