By Matt Popchock
This year’s Class AAA finalists certainly have a “team of destiny” feel. The question is, when one utters the phrase “team of destiny,” to which of the finalists are they referring?
Montour (10-2) began the season as a widespread favorite, but losses to Hopewell and 2010 championship game nemesis Central Valley left the Spartans clinging tenaciously to a playoff spot in the brutal Parkway Conference.
Then, when it mattered most, everything came together. Decisive wins over West Allegheny and Moon propelled Montour to the No. 5 seed in the Triple-A tournament, and after spanking Chartiers Valley and West Mifflin, the silver medalists got revenge on the defending WPIAL champs in heart-stopping fashion to put them in Heinz Field for the second season in a row and third time in the last five under Lou Cerro.
Give Cerro tremendous credit for resurrecting the program, and give his kids credit for rediscovering themselves as they arrive on the North Shore in search of the program’s first WPIAL football title since 1964.
His counterpart, Mike King, has also done a tremendous job rallying his kids. In the wake of a local tragedy involving a cheerleader, Knoch (12-0) has ridden the crest of an emotional wave past three quality opponents into Heinz Field, where the Knights will try to end their own prolonged championship drought at 2:00 P.M., as seen live on ROOT Sports.
Shortly after the girlfriend of talented running back Andrew Rumberg-Goodlin died in a car accident, Rumberg-Goodlin was one of several team leaders who spearheaded the Knights’ run to the 2011 WPIAL Class AAA Championship.
After capturing the Greater Allegheny Conference title, Knoch, the No. 3 seed in the Triple-A bracket, rolled past a potent West Allegheny squad, hammered perennial power Thomas Jefferson to end that team’s long streak of WPIAL Semifinal appearances, then edged Franklin Regional, the top-scoring and least scored-upon Class AAA team in the regular season, to earn a shot at the school’s first district football title since 1978.
Rumberg-Goodlin, though he was held off the score sheet in that last-second victory over Franklin Regional, has played with purpose even under trying circumstances, and he’ll be as eager as anyone to punch holes in that Montour defensive line. He has amassed 1,351 yards, which ranks among the top ten Class AAA backs, and 18 total touchdowns while averaging over seven yards per carry and drawing interest from local schools.
He has brought terrific harmony to one of the most balanced offenses in the WPIAL, a unit that averages 38.5 points per game, the third most in Class AAA. If Ky Kenyon can protect the ball better than he and his mates did last Friday and stay accurate, Rumberg-Goodlin may have room to do serious damage.
Accuracy has been a challenge for Kenyon, who has connected on just 48% of his passes, but he is still the kind of dual-threat quarterback who can give any opposing team fits, no matter how physically imposing that team is. He has thrown for 1,113 yards and 20 TD’s against ten interceptions, and he has also scrambled for nearly 900 yards, averaging well over six per carry.
Furthermore, keep your eye on Mac Megahan. He will be a key to Knoch finding consistency with its passing game, as he averages nearly 30 yards per catch and has recorded ten touchdowns. Ben Tackett, is a proven playmaker as well, not to mention the team’s leading receiver, and Dakota Bruggeman can also move the chains.
Lost in the afterglow of Knoch’s offense is the excellence of its defense. The Knights have held all but two of their opponents under ten points, and they’ve surrendered just 8.2 per game, second-fewest behind Franklin Regional. The way they dismantled the Panthers at Valley Memorial Stadium last Friday, and the way that group has galvanized is what makes this game so difficult to predict.
One thing we can predict is the Spartans will make them earn every blade of grass. What made them such an attractive preseason pick over the summer is the power they possess up front. At roughly 270 pounds a man, Montour has one of the most stubborn lines in the Commonwealth, anchored by center/nose guard and Division I/II prospect Dom Martinelli.
Defensively, Montour only seemed to get more stubborn as the year went on, and it enters Heinz Field allowing a healthy 15 points per game, which puts it among the top five units in the classification. At Ambridge’s Moe Rubenstein Stadium last week it put the kibosh on Robert Foster, one of the top all-around athletes in the WPIAL, so Montour enters Heinz Field with the confidence it can handle a lethal weapon like Kenyon.
That line can also open up holes for tailback and Kent State recruit Julian Durden, one of the best players at his position in the district. Durden has been rated among the top 100 tailbacks nationally by MaxPreps, and in addition to joining the vaunted “4,000 club” earlier this season, he is among the top ten in the WPIAL with 1,720 yards and a ridiculous average of over 12 yards per carry.
He has racked up 26 total TD’s, ranking among the district’s top ten in that category as well, and the North Catholic transfer comes into this weekend 10th in WPIAL history with nearly 5,200 career rushing yards.
But Durden is only one piece of Montour’s offensive puzzle. The other large one is senior quarterback Dillon Buechel, who finally seems to be getting the attention from recruiters he deserves. He leads Class AAA with 35 touchdown passes, and, while drawing interest from Division I and Division II programs, has led the WPIAL with 2,130 yards in the air and just seven picks on 67% passing.
One of the things makes the offense, which ranks fourth in Class AAA at over 37 points per game, so potent on a regular basis is the athleticism in the receiving corps. Devin Wilson and Darren Massey are as dependable on that side of the ball as they are in Cerro’s secondary.
Wilson is second on the team with 658 yards and nine TD’s, while Massey, who has obtained several Division I/II offers, averages over 20 yards per catch and has accounted for nearly half (16) of Buechel’s touchdown tosses. Meanwhile, they’ve each recorded 31 solo tackles entering Saturday.
They’re both capable of making big plays for Montour, and that might be what decides this contest. Last year the Spartans couldn’t make the big play, nor could they avoid giving it up. They need to remedy that, and to keep Knoch’s offense off the field as much as possible in order to avoid another letdown.
Tune into “The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services High School Football Show,” brought to you by ROOT Sports and hosted by John Phillips, Saturday at 7:00 A.M., for more on the 2011 WPIAL Football Championships, and keep reading the “Mr. High School Sports” blog Saturday for continuing coverage!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)