By Matt Popchock
In a battle between two of the classification’s premier programs, the Clairton Bears demonstrated the same thing that has separated them from so many other Class A football teams in the Commonwealth: the ability of make the big play anywhere, at any time.
Two long touchdown receptions by Terrish Webb in the first half and two long touchdown runs by Tyler Boyd in the second helped Clairton hold off the Southern Columbia Tigers, 35-19, at Hersheypark Stadium for its third state football championship in a row.
Clairton, one of the smallest football-playing schools in Pennsylvania, is the first WPIAL team to ever accomplish that feat. In addition, the Bears broke precedent even before the opening kickoff by becoming the first-ever WPIAL squad to appear in four straight PIAA title games.
It brings the Bears’ (16-0) overall winning streak to 47 games, which eclipses the WPIAL record set by Braddock from 1955 through 1960 (Braddock is now part of the Woodland Hills School District), and also puts them past New Jersey powerhouse Don Bosco Prep for the longest active high school football winning streak in the country.
It also guarantees the WPIAL will not leave the state football playoffs empty-handed for the first time since 1992. After a Montour loss, followed by upsets of Aliquippa and North Allegheny, last weekend, Clairton became the lone District 7 rep in the PIAA Finals.
This marked the first time since 1989 that had happened; Clairton, the reigning four-time WPIAL champion, also won district gold that year but did not reach the state finals.
Southern Columbia (14-2) has been on a pretty remarkable run of its own, celebrating its fourth straight District 4 Class A title and 20th in the past 21 seasons. But Friday was a once-in-a-lifetime moment that belonged to the Bears.
They were clinging to a 21-19 lead after a Southern Columbia punt with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Tigers had done a solid job containing Boyd for much of the contest, holding him to just 16 yards on his first six carries, but on the first play of the drive, he found an avenue and reversed his field multiple times for an electrifying 78-yard touchdown run that gave his team a 27-19 cushion, which essentially sealed the win.
Boyd, a junior D-1 prospect who led District 7 in overall scoring and has already received an offer from Pitt, wasn’t done yet, however. After the teams exchanged fumbles, he promptly found the end zone on a 68-yard scamper with less than two minutes to go, just for good measure. Capri Thompson’s subsequent two-point pass provided the final margin.
Thompson wore the cape for Clairton in the first half with a whopping 165 yards on just 4-of-6 passing. Chalk that up to the excellence of receiver Terrish Webb, who turned two innocent-looking plays into epic TD’s.
An 88-yard catch-and-run gave the Bears the game’s first points late in the first quarter, then in the second frame, with Clairton ahead 8-6, he scored from 65 yards out to make it 14-6.
Boyd’s 55-yard near-touchdown run set up Reuben Kelly for a goal-line plunge that gave Clairton a 21-12 advantage at halftime, albeit an advantage that came with a price tag. Another Pitt prospect, talented receiver/defensive back Trenton Coles, was lost to an MCL tear during his rare extra point attempt.
Head coach Tom Nola was furious with the indifference of officials after it appeared Coles’ leg had been run into during the kick, though upon further review, a Southern Columbia gunner had been blocked into it by one of his own players.
The Tigers, to their credit, had moved the ball much better than Clairton’s average opponent even with Coles in the lineup, racking up 141 yards and ten first downs in the first half. Other than a five-yard touchdown reception by Matt Moore, his second TD of the afternoon, late in the third quarter, the second half was a different story.
Clairton terrorized quarterback Brad Fegley throughout the fourth quarter, and Southern Columbia, which entered Friday averaging over 42 points per game, couldn’t get further than midfield. The Bears’ defense ended the 2011 season having given up less than five points per game while setting the stage for Boyd’s heroics, and they have allowed well under ten per game during their winning streak.
Lineman Carvan Thompson was a big part of that unit’s success throughout his senior season, and he aided Clairton’s assault on the record books. On Friday he made his 64th and final start in a row, which has bested the old PIAA record of 59 set by former Penn State standout Dan Connor, and is believed to be at or near a national high school record as well.
Clairton ends the 2011 season ranked No. 9 in the state, regardless of classification, by MaxPreps.
We’ll have more perspective on the Bears’ historic win later on the “Mr. High School Sports” blog at 937thefan.com.
(Special thanks to Mike White of the Post-Gazette, Kevin Gorman and Chris Harlan of the Tribune-Review, and the MSA Sports Network for their contributions to this post.)
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)