By Matt Popchock

(mpopchock@kdka.com)

Wouldn’t it be nice to get away for the holidays? Maybe some time around Thanksgiving weekend?

Never mind what any travel agent tells you. What you see on your left is the preferred destination of 64 WPIAL football teams who will try to get there starting Friday.

But before I start analyzing any games, I suppose I should give my obligatory take on the way Class AAAA was seeded on top, because, in the aftermath of the playoff pairings meeting at the Radisson in Greentree Monday night, that, by and large, was the predominant discussion.

First of all, a friendly reminder: this is not science. It’s sports. If it were science, the WPIAL Football Steering Committee would make everybody happy. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t. Because it can’t. No playoff system is perfect, but champions overcome. Gold medals aren’t won on paper, nor in spacious hotel ballrooms. They’re won on the field, and they’re won by teams who play their best football at the right time. That should be the focus of all 64 participants.

Just think about how often we debate the postseason systems in college football and/or basketball. The NCAA basically makes my point for me.

Should North Allegheny have been the top seed in Quad-A? Should Pittsburgh Central Catholic have been given that honor? Strong cases can be made for both, and though the Tigers, the defending PIAA champion were chosen over the Vikings, the preseason No. 1 and another undefeated, nationally-ranked team, I don’t believe there is a “wrong” answer to that question, per se.

Sounds trite, yes? However, cliches are cliches for a reason: they’re true.

I also should address the disdain expressed by one of my good friends in the local media (out of respect, I’ll maintain his anonymity) that Penn-Trafford was seeded fourth, and may inevitably have to run through a gauntlet that includes Gateway and North Allegheny in successive weeks, assuming the Warriors handle their business against Bethel Park. Ouch.

His point is well taken, but again, something has to give. Penn-Trafford is one of four conference champs in Quad-A. The others are North Allegheny, Central Catholic, and Upper St. Clair. All of them are incredibly tough teams, all of them got top-four seeds, and alas, all were seeded ahead of Penn-Trafford.

Per WPIAL playoff format, if the bracket goes entirely chalk, No. 1 and No. 4 will be paired up in the Semifinals, while No. 2 and No. 3 will play each other in that round. Penn-Trafford, even if seeded higher, was going to draw one of those extremely difficult opponents eventually. In addition, let’s not sell Gateway completely short as a No. 5 seed; the Gators owned the top defense in Class AAAA during the regular season (6.2 points allowed per game), which is what people for generations have been saying wins championships, and their only two losses came to Penn-Trafford and Central. I would argue Terry Smith’s team got what it deserved.

Having said that, Penn-Trafford was undefeated. Upper St. Clair was not. But the Panthers’ lone loss was a seven-point defeat at the hands of N.A.–on the road–and USC was the highest-scoring squad in Quad-A during the regular season (43.2 points per game). Again, though my friend’s argument is understandable, it’s not as though the Great Southern champions don’t have a leg to stand on.

Furthermore, the Steering Committee, for better or worse, draws upon history often in its decision-making. Historically, Upper St. Clair has enjoyed a lot of postseason success. The same can not be said for Penn-Trafford, at least in recent years. Besides, Bethel Park, as a No. 13 seed last year, stunned a pretty good McKeesport team in the First Round, so at this point, nothing is promised to the Foothills Conference front-runners.

I’m neither condoning nor condemning the Steering Committee for using the past to justify any decision. I don’t have a horse in that race. I’m simply saying, based on what I’ve learned about this group of people, that’s how they roll.

Okay, enough soapboxing from me. Bravo, Steering Committee, and kudos to WPIAL Chief Executive Tim O’Malley. For what it’s worth, you have my approval regarding this year’s brackets.

Anyway, here’s what to look for in the First Round of the 2011 WPIAL Football Playoffs:

CLASS AAAA:

If Penn-Trafford is to live up to its awesome potential, this is tailback Manny Simpson’s time to shine. He led the Warriors, and ranked sixth in the WPIAL with 1,328 rushing yards, scoring 15 TD’s. Quarterback Tom Woodson leads Gateway against counterpart Ryan Mincher and Shaler, and Penn-Trafford’s Zach Emerick has had an outstanding year under center as well, so regardless of who wins the Gateway-Shaler contest, Penn-Trafford’s Quarterfinal game will be a battle of quarterbacks who have each totaled over 1,000 offensive yards and at least ten TD’s. The Central Catholic-Peters Township game pits two of the top rushers in Quad-A against one another, as Toledo recruit Damion Jones-Moore, who ran for over 1,100 yards and scored 25 total TD’s, faces multi-sport star Andrew Erenberg of the Indians, who finished just ahead of him with 1,299 yards. Mount Lebanon-Woodland Hills is a rematch of last year’s thrilling Quarterfinal contest, won by the Wolverines 29-22 in overtime. Luke Hagy, Class AAAA’s rushing champion with 1,645 yards and 21 TD’s, scored three times for the Blue Devils in that game.

CLASS AAA:

The 8-versus-9 game between Ringgold and Highlands features a pair of talented dual-threat quarterbacks. Gage Clark, with over 1,400 yards by land and by air, powers Highlands, while Percy “Quad” Law, with over 1,200 yards on the ground, leads Ringgold. The Golden Rams, however, will have a distinct advantage if Law’s leg injury, sustained in Week 7, is still bothersome. Another top quarterback, Wayne Capers, has been battling lower-body infirmities of his own, which is bad news for Chartiers Valley, as the Colts drew 2010 runner-up Montour for a rematch of their Week 1 meeting. The Spartans blasted Char’ Valley 49-14 that night, and the Colts are just as fallible as they were in the opener if Capers can’t go. Chartiers Valley is one of ten WPIAL teams to make the 2011 playoffs after failing to qualify for the 2010 postseason. With 49.7 points per game, No. 2 seed Franklin Regional was the highest-scoring team in the WPIAL during the regular campaign. Rushel Shell, who needs just under 500 yards to become the state’s all-time leading rusher, leads Hopewell against another potent weapon, Indiana quarterback Logan Weaver, who has amassed nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and accounted for over 20 TD’s.

CLASS AA:

There usually isn’t much to talk about when the highest seed faces the lowest seed, but the Aliquippa-Steel Valley game is a fascinating collision of two very gifted underclassman running backs. Junior Dontez Williams made a seamless transition into his role after brother Delrece graduated, and Dontez led the Ironmen during the regular season with over 1,500 rushing yards and 25 TD’s, making him one of the WPIAL’s top scorers, while Dravon Henry paced the Quips with a 1,000-yard sophomore season. Quarterback Reggie Mitchell is the focal point of Shady Side Academy’s offense having run for over 1,000 yards and collected 16 TD’s. However, he faces perhaps his toughest test of the year in Beaver’s defense, which led Class AA with just 5.8 points allowed per game. Defending district champion and state runner-up South Fayette sure drew a tough assignment against Beaver Falls, which features 1,000-yard rusher Trey Hall. It’ll be interesting to see if quarterback John Lerda is well enough to play for the Lions, or if freshman Brett Brumbaugh will be baptized by fire.

CLASS A:

Once again, Clairton boasted the number one offense (47 points per game) and number one defense (two points allowed per game) in Class A during the regular season. Most believe Sto-Rox might be the only team in the state that can hang with the Bears, as the Vikings’ offense, which scored 43.8 on average, ranked a not-so-distant third. Quarterback Lenny Williams has an interesting matchup against Frazier’s Rock Vargo, who, like Williams, finished in the district’s top ten and threw for over 20 TD’s. Last Friday there was some confusion as to whether Northgate was in or out (more on that Tuesday), but in any event, Jon Girvin, one of the top five passers in the WPIAL, will need a career night to overcome perennial powerhouse Rochester, which still earned a No. 4 seed despite an uncommon second-place finish in the Big 7 Conference. The Rams averaged 36 points per game, surrendered only ten per game, and De’Andre Moon, who ran for over 1,000 yards and over 20 TD’s, will be difficult to contain on both sides of the ball.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)