By Matt Popchock
What an action-packed weekend it was. First came the WPIAL Football Championships, a 12-hour tradition like few others here in western Pennsylvania. Then, just an hour later, came another rite of passage: my ten-year reunion.
Then, on Sunday, there was another high school reunion.
Boy, does time fly anymore…
This wasn’t any ordinary high school reunion, either. I mean, no offense to the lovely folks who planned mine, but Arrowhead Stadium is a step up from your average bistro or sports bar.
Get a load of the guest list…Tyler Palko, Jonathan Baldwin, Ryan Mundy, Steve Breaston…man, they had some wild times back in the day.
Too bad Mike Logan couldn’t make it. He could sure tell some stories.
But anyway, I may have barely made it to my own reunion, but I wasn’t going to miss this one for the world.
I mean, where else could you see one of the most successful WPIAL quarterbacks of my lifetime, one of the top WPIAL receivers of the past decade, and two others who, together, helped Woodland Hills dominate Quad-A for years…all in the same place?
Oddly enough, it was just another Sunday in the NFL.
I’ve heard people say the level of high school football around here isn’t what it used to be. It’s not an irrational argument.
Today many of the country’s top prospects come from Ohio, Texas, Florida, and southern California, and last season was a particularly “down” year for recruiting around here, with Mike Caputo being one of the only impact players from western PA to get a Division I scholarship.
The days of Namath, Marino, Dorsett, and their equally gifted WPIAL brethren monopolizing the attention of college scouts from coast to coast before going on to professional glory may be a thing of the past, and the general population decline in this region is certainly a factor. But that is not to say the WPIAL doesn’t still leave a sizable footprint in the NFL.
Probably the only redeeming quality of Sunday’s game–aside from the simple fact the Steelers won–was seeing all those District 7 alumni on the same field.
I hope Sunday isn’t the last we see of Palko as a starting quarterback in the NFL either. He was one of a kind, leading West Allegheny to three consecutive district titles 1999-2001, including the Indians’ fourth in a five-year span, and he comes from a family with a proud athletic heritage. His younger sister Amy, was an integral player on some of that school’s finest girls’ volleyball teams, and his father, head football coach Bob Palko, is as cordial a person as there is in the WPIAL.
Tyler had a rough start to his NFL career against the Patriots last Monday, and despite completing 18 of 28 passes for 167 yards, his three interceptions did Kansas City no favors. I’m glad he didn’t have any fun at the Steelers’ expense, but if there were ever a former WPIAL football star otherwise easy to root for, it’s Palko.
One of those interceptions belonged to Ryan Mundy, who has taken advantage of his increased playing time in Dick LeBeau’s defense. He’s already amassed a career-best 30 total tackles, and he led the Steelers with seven solo tackles on Sunday.
Mundy, like Palko, was a USA Today All-American, and he still holds the Woodland Hills record for career receiving touchdowns with 54.
One of the players he and his mates had to defend, Steve Breaston, can empathize with Palko’s growing pains. Breaston, who caught four of Palko’s passes for 44 yards, was Mundy’s quarterback at Woody High, and he was also on the Arizona sideline when the Steelers defeated the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The previous season, his game-winning punt return TD had given Mike Tomlin his first loss as an NFL head coach.
By the way, joining Breaston on that sideline at the time was guard Reggie Wells, who was a standout on South Park’s 1997 PIAA Class AA championship team. His father, Reggie Wells Sr., is the girls’ basketball head coach at that school.
One of Breaston’s current teammates, Jonathan Baldwin, knows a thing or two about being the best in Class AA. Baldwin was one of the WPIAL’s top receivers at Aliquippa, as highlighted by his performance in the 2007 district semifinals against Terrelle Pryor’s Jeannette Jayhawks, the highest-scoring playoff game in WPIAL history.
He was his own worst enemy at Pitt, and unfortunately his personal issues continued to dog him in the early stages of his NFL career. But for now Baldwin, who caught two passes for 26 yards Sunday, seems to have turned things around, and his first professional touchdown a few weeks ago was an important one against the Chargers, so he’ll still be an interesting player to follow.
All in all, the WPIAL reunion in Kansas City was an enjoyable one. The only thing that would have made it better would have been for Mundy to strip Breaston and recover a game-deciding fumble…though, as one Twitter follower said, that probably would have made George Novak’s head explode. We’ve got enough of a mess to clean up after the party, so perish that thought.
Meanwhile, the green of the Jets’ uniforms matches the leaves of the palm trees on Revis Island. Despite the fact the Bills and Jaguars have taken their lumps, Paul Posluszny continues to make Hopewell proud. Sean Lee has become a factor on the “D” in Big D. Shawntae Spencer is part of the gridiron renaissance in San Francisco, while, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, Stefen Wisniewski is getting his “kicks” by donning the silver and black.
We may be witnessing a downturn in the level of talent coming out of western Pennsylvania, but if recent history is any guide, there will always be a place for the WPIAL in the NFL.
So let’s do this again next Sunday. I hear Coach Palko is buying this time…
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)