By Matt Popchock
The moment we’ve been waiting for arrives at 7:30 Friday night, as the First Round of the 2011 WPIAL Football Playoffs kicks off throughout western Pennsylvania. Sixty-four teams simultaneously begin their quest for a place at Heinz Field, and Mr. High School Sports is boldly predicting the 32 that will survive this week’s action, starting as always with our “UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Game of the Week”:
GAME OF THE WEEK:
(5) GATEWAY GATORS (7-2) VS. (12) SHALER TITANS (5-4)
(CLASS AAAA FIRST ROUND)
ANTIMARINO STADIUM, GATEWAY 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
J.P. Holtz is a fitting representative of Shaler’s team toughness, and Ryan Mincher has found success throwing the ball, so, early in the season, this game would have serious upset potential. But when you look at the way the Titans ended the regular campaign, especially after getting their doors blown off by Pine-Richland, you have to wonder how much confidence they have left going into this game. Gateway’s defense made a big statement by whipping rival McKeesport last Friday, and Division I prospect Tom Woodson is running the Gators’ offense as efficiently as ever. WINNER: GATEWAY.
CLASS AAAA FIRST ROUND:
(1) North Allegheny vs. (16) Fox Chapel: The Foxes feature Pitt recruit Adam Bisnowaty on the offensive line, but this team can’t out-tough the Tigers and their sustained ground attack of Vinnie Congedo, Nick Passodelis, and a cast of thousands. WINNER: NORTH ALLEGHENY.
(8) Penn Hills vs. (9) Seneca Valley (at Plum): (This game can be seen live on ROOT Sports, with pre-game coverage beginning at 7:00, and an encore presentation at midnight.) Jordan Brown will keep this game compelling with his dual threat ability, and Pitt recruit Corey Jones will be the folcrum of the Indians’ offense in what we think will be a very close, but also, potentially, a high-scoring one. Defensively, Penn Hills has played well down the stretch, which gives the hosts a slight edge. WINNER: PENN HILLS.
(4) Penn-Trafford vs. (13) Bethel Park: The Warriors drew a tough road to the North Shore, as the Hawks upset the No. 4 seed last season (McKeesport), and Anthony Cinello has progressed nicely. But between the running of Manny Simpson, and the under-appreciated arm of Zach Emerick, Penn-Trafford won’t get caught napping. WINNER: PENN-TRAFFORD.
(2) Pittsburgh Central Catholic vs. (15) Peters Township (at Fox Chapel): Those in red and white can boast that Andrew Erenberg outgained Damion Jones-Moore during the regular campaign, but when you look at the depth of the Vikings, one of the top teams in the state, that’s about all the Indians have to brag about. WINNER: CENTRAL CATHOLIC.
(7) Mount Lebanon vs. (10) Woodland Hills: Last year the blue-collar Blue Devils had trouble with the finesse of Pat Menifee and Lafayette Pitts. Only Menifee remains, and Luke Hagy has gotten better as the season has unfolded, whereas the Wolverines have stepped backward, pointing to a different outcome. WINNER: MOUNT LEBANON.
(3) Upper St. Clair vs. (14) Connellsville: After all those weeks, months, and years the Falcons made headlines for all the wrong reasons, they should be proud of what they’ve accomplished, so hopefully, if Dakota Conwell plays anything like he did last week, they won’t take it too hard. WINNER: UPPER ST. CLAIR.
(6) Erie McDowell vs. (11) McKeesport: Not much seems to get to Eddie Stockett these days, so who’s to say a long bus ride will jet-lag the Tigers’ offense? That Gateway game might be the wake-up call this otherwise solid defense needs; if it can prevent Greg Garmon from single-handedly beating them, the upset is secure. WINNER: McKEESPORT.
CLASS AAA FIRST ROUND:
(1) Central Valley vs. (16) Laurel Highlands: Jake Riddell has had a lot of success throwing the ball for the Mustangs this year, but his counterpart, Curtis Law, is just one example of how athletic the Warriors are. After all they’ve been through to get the top seed, this should be a nice change of pace. WINNER: CENTRAL VALLEY.
(8) Ringgold vs. (9) Highlands: Both teams feature dual-threat quarterbacks who have really taken command. Gage Clark has propelled the Golden Rams to the postseason, while Percy “Quad” Law continues to enjoy one of the finer careers in Ringgold history. The x-factor is Highlands’ defense, which can keep Law in check, especially if that leg injury acts up. WINNER: HIGHLANDS.
(4) West Mifflin vs. (13) Mars: It’s been a down year for the Planets, who, to their credit, have done a good job getting back to the playoffs with a lot of young talent. In contrast, it’s been an up year for Shamar Greene, who should have a big night, and for West Mifflin’s defense, which has quietly become one of the best. WINNER: WEST MIFFLIN.
(5) Montour vs. (12) Chartiers Valley: The Colts are simply a different team without a healthy Wayne Capers, and not the good kind of different, either. Michael Boulous has handled the extra workload admirably, but the Spartans have come together, and Julian Durden will be able to run wild of these guys…again. WINNER: MONTOUR.
(2) Franklin Regional vs. (15) Belle Vernon: Dane Brown has become one of the premier running backs in the WPIAL, and when we think of what he did to Ringgold in our featured game a couple weeks ago, we shudder to think what he’ll do in this contest. The Leopards can throw, but they need to really go trigger-happy to stay in it. WINNER: FRANKLIN REGIONAL.
(7) Indiana vs. (10) Hopewell: Logan Weaver has catapulted the Indians into the playoffs with his consistent throwing and unique running ability. But we all know the Vikings carry the mail the old-fashioned way, and although this will be a test for Hopewell’s defense, Rushel Shell is determined not to let his career end. WINNER: HOPEWELL.
(3) Knoch vs. (14) West Allegheny: If you’re the scoreboard operator, be prepared for carpal tunnel. West A’s wildcat offense, led by scrambling quarterback Dylan Bongiorni will keep things interesting. Ky Kenyon can do enough that last week’s injury to Andrew Rumberg-Goodlin, if serious, won’t be an issue this time, but the Indians will make the Knights work for this. WINNER: KNOCH.
(6) Thomas Jefferson vs. (11) Greensburg-Salem: Compared to years past, TJ is entering the playoffs with a relative whimper, as opposed to a loud bang, but as long as that defense plays up to its potential, Michael Kizzie will be a non-factor, and Ryan Ruffing can carry the Jaguars to victory. WINNER: THOMAS JEFFERSON.
CLASS AA FIRST ROUND:
(1) Aliquippa vs. (16) Steel Valley (at Ambridge): Two great young running backs take center stage, as Dravon Henry leads the Quips against Dontez Williams of the Ironmen. The real show-stoppers, however, are quarterback Mikal Hall and Mike Zmijanac’s defense. WINNER: ALIQUIPPA.
(8) Washington vs. (9) Mount Pleasant: If there’s one team in Class AA that has turned some heads this season, it’s the Little Prexies, led by running back Shia McKenzie. The Vikings’ defense, despite the positive strides it has made, won’t be able to stop him. WINNER: WASHINGTON.
(4) Freeport vs. (13) Ellwood City: It’s too bad Damon Smith flies under the radar, given the competition in the Allegheny Conference, because he’s had an expectional season for the Yellowjackets. But Kyle Crawford might be the best player in the classification who doesn’t get discussed, and the Wolverines can whip a little defense on Freeport. WINNER: ELLWOOD CITY.
(5) Greensburg Central Catholic vs. (12) Ford City: Jeannette got a number two seed for winning the Interstate Conference, but this particular matchup isn’t a bad consolation prize for the Centurions. The Sabers are a physical team and not an easy one to score against, but GCC is balanced enough offensively between Bobby Noble and Jordan McRae to meet this challenge. WINNER: GREENSBURG C.C.
(2) Jeannette vs. (15) Burrell: Running back Cole Bush is one of the top workhorses in the WPIAL, but breaking through the brick wall that is Jeannette’s defense is too daunting a task. Demetrius Cox can be a factor in this game on both sides of the ball. WINNER: JEANNETTE.
(7) Shady Side vs. (10) Beaver: The Indians boast Reggie Mitchell, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the district, and they’ll want to put the ball in his hands as much as possible. His undoing will be the Bobcats’ defense, which has been one of the most consistent units in Class AA, and can make teams pay for their mistakes. WINNER: BEAVER.
(3) Seton-LaSalle vs. (14) East Allegheny (at Chartiers Valley): The Wildcats struggled to grab that fourth spot out of the Interstate Conference. “Struggle” is not a word that appears to be in the vocabulary of Seton-LaSalle running back Kevin Hart these days. WINNER: SETON-LaSALLE.
(6) Beaver Falls vs. (11) South Fayette: This could be one of the tighest games of the night, and it’s also, from our own point of view, one of the toughest games to call. Take nothing away from what Brett Brumbaugh did last week, but if the less experienced QB has to go for the Lions again, the Tigers’ defense can abbreviate South Fayette’s title defense. WINNER: BEAVER FALLS.
CLASS A FIRST ROUND:
(1) Clairton vs. (16) Cornell: When the clock strikes 7:30 at Neil C. Brown Stadium, that’s when the real fun begins. No, I’m not talking about whether anyone can beat the Bears, but rather, whether anyone can score on them. WINNER: CLAIRTON.
(8) Monessen vs. (9) Springdale: We think fleet-footed quarterback Chavas Rawlins can be a crucial figure in this game. We also think Chuck Wagner’s defense, after surviving the Eastern Conference, is more than tough enough to handle the Greyhounds…and putting the ball in Sean Dugan’s hands wouldn’t hurt, either. WINNER: SPRINGDALE.
(4) Rochester vs. (13) Northgate: Jon Girvin is throwing the ball as confidently as any quarterback in the WPIAL right now. Unfortunately for his sake, he’s lining up opposite a pretty anonymous, but also pretty stubborn defense; furthermore, look for tailback De’Andre Moon to have a field day. WINNER: ROCHESTER.
(5) Avonworth vs. (12) California: The aptly-named T.D. Conway has scored plenty of those in his time at California, and he’ll need to score a bunch more against the ‘Lopes. Against that defense, it’s not an easy proposition, and Avonworth’s offense, led by Ricky Lawncizak, can wear them down. WINNER: AVONWORTH.
(2) Sto-Rox vs. (15) Frazier: Give credit to Rock Vargo for carrying the Commodores to an uncommon appearance in these playoffs. But this is the start of a remarkable run for the Vikings, who simply have too many weapons. Everyone say it with us: down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier. WINNER: STO-ROX.
(7) Brentwood vs. (10) Western Beaver: Some think Eric Blinn, who makes a lot of things happen for the Golden Beavers, is the key player to watch in this one. We, on the other hand, can’t take our eyes off Justin Vickless, considering the way he ran the ball last week. WINNER: BRENTWOOD.
(3) Bishop Canevin vs. (14) Chartiers-Houston: The Bucs haven’t won a playoff game since before Canevin’s last undefeated season. This won’t be their lucky day if the Crusaders give Danny Lis a hard time, and in the meantime, Casey McCaffrey has emerged into a handy little weapon for Bob Jacoby’s offense. WINNER: BISHOP CANEVIN.
(6) Beth-Center vs. (11) Fort Cherry: This one is going to come down to whichever QB is on his game the most, and there’s a lot to like about Tanner Garry, one of the top statistical quarterbacks in the WPIAL. Having said that, we like Sal Faieta’s chances a little better, mainly because we like his defense a lot better. WINNER: BETH-CENTER.
Be sure to visit the “Mr. High School Sports” blog later this weekend, and tune into “The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services High School Football Show,” presented by ROOT Sports and hosted by John Phillips, Saturday at 7:00 A.M. for continuing coverage of the 2011 WPIAL Football Playoffs!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)