By Matt Popchock
Clairton will arrive at Slippery Rock University Friday night proud owners of the second-longest active winning streak in American high school football: 45 games.
A win over District 10 Class A champion Sharpsville in the PIAA Football Semifinals will tie the Bears with Braddock for the longest win streak in WPIAL football history. They’ve already tied one of Braddock’s other benchmarks by becoming the second WPIAL team to earn four district championships in a row.
So what has been the most memorable part of this historic run for the two-time state champs? Darned if we know.
Darned if some of their players know too.
When running back Tyler Boyd was honored as part of the Post-Gazette’s annual Fabulous 22 team, he was asked what stands out the most about this season. Boyd said it’s hard to tell because of how Clairton has dominated opponents in an almost routine manner.
Some say Clairton should “play up” in Class AA in the foreseeable future. I lump myself into that camp.
But because I’ve taken some heat in private for saying so, let me take this opportunity to publicly qualify that statement.
I take nothing away from what Tom Nola and his kids have accomplished. Regardless of the level of competition in Class A, high school football is cyclical, and so much has to happen for a winning streak of this magnitude to take place. I’m simply saying, I’d like to see the Bears, in the best of all possible worlds, matriculate someday because the program is clearly “that good.”
Furthermore, being a student-athlete means developing skills in an educational setting. To underscore Boyd’s remarks, what is to be learned by effectively winning games by halftime week after week?
But these aren’t the best of all possible worlds. Each of this year’s WPIAL Class AA finalists, Aliquippa and Jeannette, are technically, per volume of enrollment, Class A schools. They have chosen to play up in football for many years, and obviously that move has served both of them exceptionally well.
What helps them do so is the fact that Aliquippa’s roster is 60-deep, and Jeannette’s is 50-deep. Clairton’s, however, is 35-deep, to be exact, and that includes a few players that, at other programs, might be relegated to the JV squad.
From a pure standpoint of competition, it would be fun to see Clairton, while still theoretically in its prime, stack up against teams of that caliber at least once a year on a regular basis. Young athletes in any sport are eager to prove themselves, and deep down, I’m sure Boyd and his teammates would gladly trade some of those perfunctory 80-0 blowouts over Insert-Name-Here for the chance to play the kind of game the Quips and Jayhawks staged at Heinz Field.
A move to Class AA could conceivably help the development of Clairton’s players, and it could help improve the already strong credibility of the program in the eyes of recruiters.
The economic and political reality is that move isn’t going to happen anytime soon…barring the unlikely event of a population boon in that community, or an equally unlikely decision by the WPIAL to expand to more than four classifications in the mainstream sports.
I can’t promise any more epic winning streaks, but I’m fairly certain, if given a Class AA schedule, Clairton would still contend in football year after year. But until it gets the numbers to make that move feasible, the point will have to remain a moot one. So let’s enjoy the now.
In journalism, we don’t root for teams. We root for stories. With all due respect to what the other Class A teams in the state have accomplished this season, I’m the first to admit I’d like to see Clairton complete the three-peat and beat Braddock’s record because it’s a neat story. It’s a spectacle of athletic excellence my generation might never see again.
I expect the Bears (14-0) to take the next step toward history when they meet the Blue Devils (13-0) at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.
Defensively Sharpsville has allowed just 9.7 points per game and has posted two of its five shutouts in the postseason. It rallied from 20 down to beat Port Allegany in the PIAA Quarterfinals, thanks to three touchdown runs from Spencer Bland, so that team is poised enough to maybe pose a little more of a challenge for Clairton than North Star did in a 44-0 rout.
However, no team in the state has the poise of Clairton, and that was evident last week. North Star drove deep into enemy territory four times during the first half. On all four occasions the Bears promptly pushed them backward.
They’ve allowed just 3.6 points per game while posting nine shutouts, rivaling their amazing play of a year ago. Boyd racked up 177 yards on just seven carries against North Star, scoring on Clairton’s first play from scrimmage, and running for another touchdown later in the half. He isn’t the only player on that team capable of burning Sharpsville’s defense on one play, either.
Is Clairton still the toast of Class A? Without a doubt. Is Class A down, at least in the WPIAL, this year? I’ll bite. Does that detract from the significance of what we’re seeing happen on the gridiron every Friday night when those kids take the field? I don’t think so.
Regardless of who plays against the Bears tomorrow, the week after, a year from now, or several years from now, I appreciate what that program has accomplished under trying circumstances, and I appreciate the way Clairton, in good times and bad, rallies around its football team. That’s what high school football in these parts is all about.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)