By Matt Popchock
Rochester did not win the Big 7 Conference title, nor did it even share it. It needed a big defensive stand and a little help from the men in stripes to get past Avonworth in last week’s WPIAL Class A Quarterfinals.
Conventional wisdom says the Rams are a notch below their old selves this year as they get ready to face the PIAA champs in the postseason for the sixth time in a row, this time in Friday’s Semifinal contest at West Allegheny’s Joe P. DiMichela Stadium. But Clairton head coach Tom Nola, despite leading his team to wins each of the last five outings, isn’t buying it.
“They’re similar [to past teams] in a lot of ways,” Nola said. “They’re similar in that they play good, hard-nosed football. Their defense is always good, and their offense, mostly, just tries to come right at you. They still have great leadership and valuable experience.”
Fortunately for Rochester’s sake, Clairton has taken a small step backward too. This year it’s only about twice as good as most of Class A.
The Bears have allowed 3.5 points per game and posted eight shutouts. Not to be overlooked, however, Rochester ranks sixth in the classification with just 12.5 points allowed per game, and despite getting lit up for 22 in each of its playoff contests, the Rams seem to have found consistency with a younger group over the long haul.
They’re one of those teams that simply reloads, and the simple fact they’ve made it this far with the general improvement of the competition in Class A proves they’ve done it again.
So why is Clairton, a much smaller program facing the same roster turnover as any other, the one riding a near-record 42-game winning streak into the semis?
“We’ve had some real good kids come through hear over the years. But once you get to the playoffs, it’s about which teams can out-tough the others, and that’s the way we’ve always tried to play,” Nola said. “Like Rochester, we’ve shown character on both sides of the ball.”
One in particular who has shown character on both sides of the ball is running back/linebacker De’Andre Moon. He has run for over 1,600 yards this season, averaging nearly eight per carry, and he has been one of the most dominant backs in the WPIAL as of late.
His counterpart, Tyler Boyd, is another. Boyd, a 1,500-yard rusher and part-time tackling machine, has really taken charge of his own offense as well–especially last Friday, when he ran for 216 yards and three scores.
Moon’s play bodes well for Rochester, though, considering Clairton is coming off a tough outing against Springdale, which ran the ball better than any of Clairton’s 2011 opponents. The Dynamos didn’t seem intimidated by that defense, despite a 34-20 loss.
“We’ve talked about some things we needed to address, and we feel we addressed them, but that’s a compliment to Springdale too,” Nola offered. “They played us real tough. They ran their offense well…and we didn’t tackle well. Plus, we were a little banged up.”
According to Nola, three unnamed regulars were hurt during the Quarterfinal round–two with sprained knees, and one with a sprained ankle. None have practiced this week, but all three are expected to play.
Good thing, too, because for Nola’s very talented, but very small group, nothing less than full strength will stop Rochester’s quest for revenge.
“Every game has been close. Even the most lopsided of those five games, which we won by 16, I thought, was a close one. Whoever best plays their own brand of football–making the other team do things they don’t normally do–is probably going to be the winner.”
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)