By Matt Popchock
The first two rounds of the 2011 WPIAL Football Playoffs have been pretty chalk. All the number one seeds have survived to this point, and of the 16 teams gearing up for Semifinal Friday, none are seeded lower than fifth. But there’s nothing ordinary about this particular Friday, nor the reward that awaits the winners.
Eight teams will advance to the WPIAL Football Championships at Heinz Field next Saturday. Mr. High School Sports will now fearlessly predict those eight finalists, starting, as always, with our “UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Game of the Week,” back again on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan:
GAME OF THE WEEK:
(2) PITTSBURGH CENTRAL CATHOLIC VIKINGS (11-0) VS. (3) UPPER ST. CLAIR PANTHERS (10-1)
(CLASS AAAA SEMIFINALS)
CHARTIERS VALLEY STADIUM, CHARTIERS VALLEY 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
Sufficed to say, Upper St. Clair’s hopes of a minor upset hinge on the banged-up ankle of dual-threat quarterback and Pitt recruit Dakota Conwell. A very reliable source has told me Conwell’s injured foot is, in fact, broken, and he will be replaced by Pete Coughlin. USC is still tough up front, but in my mind, just not the same team if Conwell, in fact, can’t go. The key for the Vikings will be to be patient on both sides of the ball, protect the pigskin, and find balance not just by opening holes for Damion Jones-Moore–who was bottled up in last year’s Semifinals–but by getting the ball from Perry Hills to Anthony Nixon, and getting Nixon and his fellow receivers involved. I picked Central to win the WPIAL title when the playoffs started. Last week on “The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services High School Football Show,” I went back on that, because I like how USC is peaking at the right time. I’ll revert to my original pick, now that I know the Panthers’ offense, in all probability, will not have its lynch pin. WINNER: CENTRAL CATHOLIC.
CLASS AAAA SEMIFINALS:
(1) North Allegheny vs. (5) Gateway at Fox Chapel – (This game can be seen on ROOT Sports live at 7:30 P.M.) Two of the physically toughest teams in Quad-A, and two teams who have shown they have what it takes to get to Heinz Field are united for what could be as bloody an affair as Steelers-Ravens. Terry Smith, who guided the Gators to three unsuccessful trips to the Class AAAA Final 2007-09, leads his team against the Tigers and Art Walker, who has won WPIAL championships with both N.A. and Central Catholic. Darin Franklin looks hungry and is running the ball as well as he has all year, but N.A. has a bunch of Darin Franklins, so to speak, including Vinnie Congedo and Nick Passodelis. Points will be hard to come by, but Mack Leftwich is a little more accurate than Tom Woodson, which will make points a little easier to come by for the defending champs. WINNER: NORTH ALLEGHENY.
CLASS AAA SEMIFINALS:
(1) Central Valley vs. (5) Montour at Ambridge – This game, a rematch of Cinderella’s coronation in the 2010 WPIAL Class AAA Final, probably deserves a bigger stage. This will mark the sixth year in a row that at least one Parkway Conference team will advance to Heinz Field, and it will be a showdown of two of the best Class AAA teams in the state. Once upon a time, I thought the physical superiority of Montour would be enough to carry it to a state title, but the finesse and athleticism of the Warriors has been to much for the Spartans to keep pace. If Dillon Buechel is on target, that will open things up for the running of Julian Durden and make this a game, but Central Valley seems to have their number, and Robert Foster, like last fall, seems to be getting hotter as the air gets colder. WINNER: CENTRAL VALLEY.
(2) Franklin Regional vs. (3) Knoch at Valley – This matchup is chock full of irony; these two teams used to meet annually as members of the Greater Allegheny Conference, and they’re playing at a school that is currently a member of the GAC. The Panthers boast the second-best scoring defense in the WPIAL and the best in this classification, and the only way to beat it is to attack it aggressively, and attack it from all directions, which is what the Knights can do. Ky Kenyon has really come into his own under center, and after the tragic events in that community, running back Andrew Rumberg-Goodlin, to say nothing of his teammates, is playing with a chip on his shoulder. Franklin Regional showed some of its own offense balance last week against Hopwell, but even if Dane Brown finds daylight on the ground, Knoch still has the weaponry to outgun the Keystone champs. WINNER: KNOCH.
CLASS AA SEMIFINALS:
(1) Aliquippa vs. (5) Greensburg Central Catholic at Martorelli Stadium, West View – Much of the focus has shifted to Mike Zmijanac’s not-so-subtle jab at GCC, another allegation of illegal recruitment of talent, and this time coming from one of the most successful head coaches in the district. If I’m Muzzy Colosimo, who has had a great run as the Centurions’ head coach, I shrug it off and simply point to the fact that, when last these two teams played two years ago, the Quips got their doors blown off as Muzzy got that school its first WPIAL football title. This time, however, will be different. GCC can run with power behind Jordan McRae, Bobby Noble has been pretty consistent, and that defense is under-rated, so the Centurions will fight hard. But Aliquippa is more athletic top to bottom, and defends even better; plus, running back Dravon Henry is playing beyond his years. As long as the Quips don’t turn the ball over, they’ll tough this one out. WINNER: ALIQUIPPA.
(2) Jeannette vs. (3) Seton-LaSalle at Elizabeth Forward – This game features two teams that, arguably, could have been flip-flopped in seeding, and it also features one of the most fascinating individual (statistical) battles of this weekend. Kevin Hart has practically become a one-man team for the Rebels–South Fayette can attest to that–and as long as that line can block for him, the Jayhawks are going to have a dickens of a time stopping him. Having said that, Jeannette has perhaps the most stubborn defense high-scoring Seton-LaSalle has faced to this point, and dual-threat quarterback Demetrius Cox is just as much a threat on one side of the ball as he is on the other. What I’m about to say flies in the face of the adage about what wins championships, but anyway, I’ve liked LaSalle for a while becaus it can score, and its own defense has risen to the occasion every week against slightly stiffer competition. This week will be no different. WINNER: SETON-LaSALLE.
CLASS A SEMIFINALS:
(1) Clairton vs. (4) Rochester at West Allegheny – For the last five years, these teams have met in the later rounds of the postseason, and for those five years, Clairton has stymied the Rams, including three victories at Heinz Field. Rochester, like its opponent, has a bruising running attack led by De’Andre Moon, and the one thing that hasn’t changed about this team is that it takes others out of their comfort zone. The same can still be said for the PIAA champs, winners of 42 in a row, who still have too many great athletes to name as I speak. I’ll start, though, with running back Tyler Boyd, who is playing as well both ways as any player in Class A right now. Furthermore, I need not remind you which team has the best scoring defense in the Commonwealth. Order me a six-pack… WINNER: CLAIRTON.
(2) Sto-Rox vs. (3) Bishop Canevin at Moon – The Crusaders are in the midst of a historic run, a run that almost came completely unraveled against Chartiers-Houston. The following week, Canevin had to grind out a low-scoring win over Fort Cherry, though the way it contained Tanner Garry was pretty impressive. The Vikings, however, are about more than just quarterback Lenny Williams. Josh Beverly has been running the ball consistently, and Marzett Geter and Deaysean Rippy have contributed on both sides. As long as they can contain Canevin’s top playmaker, Bobby Gustine, the Crusaders won’t be tough enough to beat perhaps the only team talented enough to take down Clairton. WINNER: STO-ROX.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)