By Matt Popchock
For four District 7 football teams the road to Heinz Field led to a dead end, but for four others it was just another destination along the journey gridiron glory.
We congratulate Sto-Rox, Jeannette, Knoch, and Upper St. Clair on excellent seasons, and in the meantime, the journey continues for Clairton, Aliquippa, Montour, and North Allegheny, each of whom will try to get one step closer to Hersheypark Stadium as the PIAA Football Quarterfinals commence.
Here’s what to look for Friday and Saturday:
FRIDAY, 7:00 P.M., COUGAR MOUNTAIN STADIUM AT YOUGH HIGH SCHOOL
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Clairton routed Sto-Rox 42-6 to capture its fourth straight WPIAL Class A title. North Star defeated Windber 28-14 two Fridays ago to defend its District 5 Class A championship.
FAST FACTS: The Bears are trying to extend a 44-game winning streak. They need three more to break Brookline’s WPIAL record; in fact, Brookline was the last WPIAL team to win four straight district championships. Quarterback Max Strasiser led North Star to victory once again with 88 yards rushing and 102 in the air on 7-of-11 passing, one rush TD, and one touchdown pass. He has thrown for over 2,000 yards and run for over 600, while accounting for 25 TD’s. In last year’s PIAA playoff meeting, a 52-0 Clairton blowout, the Bears held him to 33 yards on 2-of-11 passing and a staggering -48 net rushing yards. Brother Tony Strasiser leads the Cougars with 1,013 yards receiving and ten touchdowns. Tyler Boyd led Clairton with 141 rushing yards and three TD’s on just 12 carries against Sto-Rox. He has amassed 1,841 yards and has led the WPIAL with 39 total TD’s. Capri Thompson threw for just 49 yards versus the Vikings, but he enters this game with over 1,400 and 12 touchdown passes. Clairton is allowing just 3.9 points per game.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: North Star’s best bet is to let Strasiser try and beat Clairton with his arm and hope the Bears get into penalty trouble again. Clairton won’t give him any room to run, and as long as Boyd remains at the top of his game, the Bears should get plenty of big plays for a typical Clairton victory. After trouncing Sto-Rox, I’m convinced the worst is behind them.
FRIDAY, 7:00 P.M., MEMORIAL STADIUM AT CLARION UNIVERSITY
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Aliquippa came from behind to beat Jeannette 14-7 for its unprecedented 14th WPIAL Class AA title. Moniteau, the District 9 Class AA champion, earned a 39-12 win over Oliver, the fifth-place team in the City League, in PIAA First Round action.
FAST FACTS: One of the most storied programs in the country, let alone western PA, Aliquippa is going for its third state crown and first since 2003. Mikal Hall led that dramatic victory for the Quips with 12 completions on 19 attempts for 152 yards and two TD passes. He enters this weekend with over 1,400 yards and 18 touchdown tosses. Sophomore running back Dravon Henry has been the fulcrum of that offense. He was limited to 92 yards on 22 carries by Jeannette, but Henry enters the state playoffs with 1,277 yards and 19 total TD’s, including 13 on the ground. Aliquippa’s defense is averaging 7.9 points allowed per game. Moniteau scored 24 unanswered points to beat Oliver, and dual-threat QB Kyle Armagost led the charge with four TD passes and 245 yards on 12-of-20 passing, along with a short touchdown run. He has thrown for 24 TD’s and over 2,000 yards, while also rushing for 1,266 and 20 TD’s. His primary target is Ethan Pry, who has caught 11 touchdowns and racked up 956 yards, and has also made five defensive INT’s. Andy Armagost is also a presence defensively, and leads the Warriors with 150 total tackles. Moniteau averages 37.9 points per game.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: The Quips just got done surviving a team that relied heavily on a versatile quarterback, and that defense did a good job making him a non-factor. Armagost can make his share of plays, and has a talented back in Dustin Geagan who can help take some of the pressure off him, but as long as Aliquippa contains Armagost and controls the ball to its own capability, it should advance.
FRIDAY, 7:00 P.M., NEUMAN STADIUM AT NORTH ALLEGHENY HIGH SCHOOL
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Montour coasted to a 42-14 victory over Knoch to capture its first WPIAL championship since 1964. Grove City blanked Erie Cathedral Prep 33-0 for the District 10 Class AAA championship.
FAST FACTS: Montour enters the state playoffs as the No. 6 team in the PIAA, regardless of classification, according to MaxPreps, while Grove City enters at No. 11. It was the running of Julian Durden that shredded the Knights last weekend, as he rumbled for 159 yards and four touchdowns on 17 carries. Durden enters Friday with 1,870 yards and 25 of his 30 TD’s on the ground. Dillon Buechel helped guide the Spartans with ten completions on 17 attempts for 184 yards and one touchdown to give him over 2,300 pass yards and 36 TD’s this season. The team is averaging 37.5 points per game. Grove City’s offense averages a whopping 52 points per game, and got three rush TD’s from Wesley Phipps, who ran for 99 yards on 19 carries last week. He has run for 1,268 yards and 28 TD’s, averaging over ten yards per carry. The Eagles lean on their running game, as Tyler Dagres has thrown for just 768 yards and five touchdowns against three INT’s. Grove City is allowing less than five points per game.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: Grove City’s defense can keep it in this game. The Eagles have the ability to take away the run and make Buechel beat them alone. Having said that, this is probably the deepest and fastest team they’ve faced all year. Plus, Montour has one of the toughest defensive fronts in the Commonwealth, and that doesn’t bode well for a team that, seemingly, can’t move the ball without Phipps being productive.
SATURDAY, 12:00 P.M., MANSION PARK STADIUM IN ALTOONA
HOW THEY GOT THERE: North Allegheny, the reigning state champ, successfully defended its WPIAL Class AAAA crown with a 28-21 overtime win over Upper St. Clair. State College, the District 6/9/10 Quad-A champ, also needed overtime to edge City League champion University Prep, 33-32, in PIAA First Round action.
FAST FACTS: Art Walker’s Tigers enter the state playoffs as the top-ranked team across the board according to MaxPreps, and N.A. has reached No. 19 in their national Freeman (computer-based) Rankings, not to mention No. 22 nationally in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 (human) poll. New quarterback Mack Leftwich has made an immediate impact, tossing 18 touchdowns and throwing for nearly 2,000 yards, while scrambling for 579 yards and nine TD’s. Leftwich ran 20 times for 117 yards and two scores, including the game-winner, while going 10-of-16 for 148 yards and one TD with one pick. Nick Passodelis, Vinnie Congedo, and Alex DiCiantis have shared the load out of the backfield. They were held to a combined 66 yards last week, but on the season, they have combined for over 2,000 yards and 36 TD’s. North Allegheny averages 39.5 points per game. Meanwhile, Josh Weakland, State College’s quarterback, has struggled at times, throwing for just five TD’s against eight INT’s while amassing over 1,000 yards. The heartbeat of the offense is running back Jack Haffner, who leads the Little Lions with 2,050 yards and 27 touchdowns. Defensively, State College, as a team, has racked up 12 interceptions. The Lions bowed to N.A. twice last year, and North Allegheny won its 2011 opener against State College 53-21.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: If State College’s secondary can neutralize James Kleinhampl and Brendan Coniker and force Leftwich to make mistakes, that’ll make things interesting. Realistically, though, North Allegheny is too powerful up front, and as long as the Tigers play within themselves, they can easily control this contest with their running game.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: Follow me on Twitter at the user name given below for more on tonight’s games as they happen, including a link where you can listen to a special on-air appearance by “Mr. High School Sports!”)
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)