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I’m Matt Popchock, and I’m just getting started.
Central Valley senior athlete Jordan Whitehead says: He’ll devote his senior season to becoming a better team leader while he ponders a list of colleges that includes Ohio State, Alabama, Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia:
Central Valley had built a 21-0 lead at Montour last Friday when Whitehead fumbled the ball away on a would-be first down run up the middle. New Montour quarterback Randall Labrie took advantage by hitting Stephen Fedyshyn for a 13-yard touchdown to give the Spartans a pulse.
On their very next offensive play, the Warriors ran the toss sweep right to Whitehead.
Gone. 60 yards. Right up the far sideline. Wasn’t close to being touched. 21-point lead restored, literally, at the drop of a hat.
Whitehead finished with 145 yards rushing and that lone TD on 11 attempts in a 48-28 victory. He also recovered a fumble while on offense and had a 63-yard interception return on defense.
You can tell the respect that other teams have for him. Labrie didn’t throw in his general direction at all until the second half, when Montour tried to mount a comeback. Plus, the two or three times Whitehead was kicked to, his snake-like returns were called back on penalties.
Central Valley head coach Mark Lyons says: The next step in Whitehead’s progression is to get him more work as a wide receiver:
George didn’t complete a pass in the second half, and Whitehead, who led the team in receptions and receiving yards last year, didn’t have a catch all night. Against this opponent, however, that first half was all they would need.
For both teams, there is some typical Week 1 rust to shake off, no doubt. But Whitehead could get some work done at home against Blackhawk in Week 2 before a tough non-conference game against Quad-A Penn Hills at Sarge Alberts Stadium.
Post-Gazette scholastic sports editor Mike White says: Just as 2013 was an eerily unfortunate year for some of the biggest football stars in the WPIAL, the 2014 season began with Mars tailback Josh Schultheis and Seneca Valley quarterback T.J. Holl suffering long-term injuries.
POPCHOCK SAYS: The extent of my career as a student-athlete was six years of cross-country in middle school and high school, and a couple years of track and field (mainly short-distance running).
Don’t bother Googling my accomplishments, because I never won a single event in my entire varsity career. So maybe I just don’t understand the will to win, or what it takes to succeed personally in a given sport. But I also never sustained a single injury, let alone a career-changing one, and I never suffered through anything worse than common fatigue and soreness.
And yet it seems like football players with much higher ceilings athletically than I ever had are dropping like flies at an increasing rate. And it’s not just the typical bumps and bruises of football season, either–take it from Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, who lost his entire Heisman candidacy because of an innocent-looking pass attempt in training camp.
Why is that? Well, I’ve got a theory about that, and about the general 24/7/365 mentality of the modern athlete.
Thanks to my parents, I was a very grounded athlete. To me, my game was WPIAL cross-country and track, not the Super Bowl (though, sadly, to some, it is). It wasn’t my livelihood. It was just something I did–specifically, something I did to stay active, represent my school, and make friends. Nothing less, nothing more. Perhaps, at times, I was guilty of not taking it seriously enough, but I also never took it too seriously.
Our season was relatively short, running from the beginning of the academic year to late October or early November. Winter conditioning did not begin for at least another month, and workouts, at least as far as I can recall, were voluntary. Track season would run from March through early May, and summer conditioning for cross-country did not begin for at least another month.
Like the student-athletes of present day, I worked throughout the year to get better. But unlike many of the student-athletes of present day, I also took significant time off, and I’d like to think that kept me healthy too.
Schulteis hurt his lower leg (tibia). Holl hurt his knee (MCL). Braxton Miller hurt his throwing shoulder. I don’t know everything there is to know about their respective training regimens, but I’m taking a leap of faith that they were all extremely dedicated.
Regardless, there’s a pattern here: the leg, the knee, and the shoulder, like everything else in our bodies, are muscles. Muscles work their best when they are warm, and when they have a healthy amount of time to rest.
Don’t believe me? This balance between activity and inactivity is constantly being re-examined. My coach always got on us about stretching in advance of a race. Today, there are doctors who contend that the amount of stretching one does can actually be counterproductive (I won’t get too far into the science behind it, but basically, they think too much stretching tricks your brain into thinking you’re tired).
I’m not a doctor, nor have I ever played one on TV, nor have I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express within the past 24 hours. But I don’t have to be a doctor to understand that the human body, in order to function at its best, must be allowed time not to function at all.
After much deliberation, it’s time to announce my POPCHOCK ON PREPS High School Football Game of the Week:
Pine-Richland Rams (1-0 in Class AAAA Northern Eight Conference, 1-0 overall)
at North Allegheny Tigers (1-0 in Class AAAA Northern Eight Conference, 1-0 overall)
7:30 p.m. EDT – Newman Stadium
POPCHOCK SAYS: If honesty is truly the best policy, then I see a lot of clunkers on the proverbial lot in Week 2. This game, however, could be a Lamborghini. In last year’s meeting North Allegheny escaped with an epic 29-28 win that came down to a special teams miscue at the very end of the night. But what really makes this one fascinating is, even though both teams began the new season by pitching shutouts, it’s not easy to get a read on them yet. Pine-Richland mercy-ruled Shaler, but, with all due respect, Shaler is–well, Shaler. The Tigers, meanwhile, earned a victory at Seneca Valley that could be huge in the long haul. To beat the Raiders, however, they also needed the Raiders to beat themselves–and boy, did they ever:
Don’t get me wrong, I believe NA is still a good team. But I also believe it needs to hold serve against Pine-Richland, which is probably the top under-the-radar team in the Northern Eight, in order to suspend any remaining disbelief.
As far as players to watch are concerned, the Rams have an Army commit in their backfield who can run like a tank:
Connor Slomka rushed for 1,144 yards as a junior, and he opened his senior year with 81 yards and two scores on 13 carries in that 42-0 romp in Week 1. The Rams also have a Pennsylvania commit at the trigger:
Ben DiNucci finished last year among the WPIAL top ten in passing yardage, and he led all Quad-A quarterbacks in Week 1 with 269 yards and four TDs on 14-of-23 passing.
Entering last season there was a QB controversy in Wexford. This season it’s pretty clear dual threat Jeff Clemens will be the focal point of North Allegheny’s offense:
Last week, even amid a colossal defensive struggle, Clemens still completed 11 of 19 passes for 167 yards, and his decisive touchdown runs were part of a team-best 107 rushing yards on 21 tries.
Collectively, my x-factor is team defense. What can these teams to do mitigate the damage each other can do on the scoreboard? Specifically, PR’s Slomka (6’0″, 205 lbs.) can really fly to the ball from his middle linebacker spot, and NA’s Riley Trueman (5’11”, 175 lbs.) made one big play after another in the secondary in Week 1.
NA moved up to No. 21 in the MaxPreps Pennsylvania Top 25 with its 14-0 upset of Seneca. Pine-Richland is holding strong at No. 10 among Quad-A schools in the Pennsylvania Football News state rankings. Both teams still have a lot to prove, and it may take them until the very last possession Friday night to prove it.
ROOT Sports will be there Friday night, making this the first game of its flexible 2014 live broadcast schedule. And as I just got done saying, I’ll be at “The U” as well with more on this Northern Eight affair.
Here are some other interesting Week 2 contests:
Peters Township (0-1 in Class AAAA Southeastern Conference, 0-1 overall)
at Upper St. Clair (0-1 in Class AAAA Southeastern Conference, 0-1 overall)
7:30 p.m. EDT – Panther Stadium
POPCHOCK SAYS: Now that Jim Render is done venting about how the WPIAL schedule-makers are out to get him, he can continue his pursuit of career win No. 376, which keeps him third on Pennsylvania’s all-time list. Then again, maybe getting a little pissed off is just what the Panthers need after a sub-par season opener? Peters is also going to play angry after having a chance to prove something against Woodland Hills, only to get embarrassed at home. Nobody in this conference wants to face the adversity of starting 0-2, and I look for USC to bounce back.
Gateway (0-1 in Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference, 0-1 overall)
at West Mifflin (1-0 in Class AAA Big Nine Conference, 1-0 overall)
7:30 p.m. EDT – Titan Stadium
POPCHOCK SAYS: The Gators’ overtime loss to Greensburg-Salem was, without question, my biggest head-scratcher of Week 1. If they can’t wash the stink off in time to bring their A-game to West Mifflin, they’ll be in very unfamiliar–and uncomfortable–territory entering Week 3. We know the Titans are going to run til their legs fall off, and they’re going to call upon new featured tailback DiAngelo Mitchell (148 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries, plus four receptions for 48 yards in Week 1) to do most of it. What remains to be seen is whether Gateway still has the horses to keep up offensively.
Keystone Oaks (0-1 in Class AA Century Conference, 0-1 overall)
at South Fayette (1-0 in Class AA Century Conference, 1-0 overall)
7:00 p.m. EDT – South Fayette Stadium
POPCHOCK SAYS: South Fayette senior Brett Brumbaugh now needs just under 1,000 yards to supplant Sto-Rox alumnus Lenny Williams as the WPIAL’s all-time passing yardage leader after an easy win over East Allegheny. Meanwhile, despite KO’s heart-breaker against the Quakers, the Golden Eagles’ quarterback, Kobe Phillippi, unofficially threw for four more yards than Brumbaugh in Week 1, believe it or not. Can they catch the Lions napping in their own den? It’s not likely, but in any event, the resulting air show could be pretty entertaining.
Wilkinsburg (1-0 in Class A Eastern Conference, 1-0 overall)
at Clairton (0-0 in Class A Eastern Conference, 1-0 overall)
7:00 p.m. EDT – Neil C. Brown Stadium
POPCHOCK SAYS: For at least one week, the Wilkinsburg faithful could brag about their team being ahead of Clairton in the standings, albeit just because the latter went out of conference to crush California last Friday. Anyway, I’m not spotlighting this game because of the possible outcome; in truth, I expect the Bears to dominate, but POPCHOCK ON PREPS does not go out of its way to make anyone look bad. I’m discussing it because Wilkinsburg features one of the most remarkable personnel stories of the young season: center-turned-quarterback (yes, you read that correctly) Jonathan Carpenter. Tribune-Review featured columnist Kevin Gorman wrote a nice, in-depth account of this position change.
How did he fare in his debut? Carpenter amassed 191 yards, the third-most of any Class A quarterback in Week 1, and accounted for all three of the Tigers’ touchdowns in a 24-14 win over Leechburg last Saturday.
In the offseason, Gorman, inspired by third-year head coach Michael Fulmore, gave a fascinating lesson on the history of Wilkinsburg football. Apropos of the WPIAL Football Championships turning a century old this year, the Tigers won the first three ever, but they haven’t won another one since 1957.
This all reminds me a little bit of those Avella squads a few years back that had to fight like mad not just to win, but to even put a team on the field. I have a lot of respect for programs like those two that have continued to try and do the right thing and solider on under trying circumstances over the years, and kudos to their respective communities for rallying around them.
Post-Gazette scholastic sports reporter Brad Everett says: For entertainment purposes only, you might want to take Pine-Richland in Friday’s game:
Wow! 5Dimes sportsbook is offering action on Friday’s North Allegheny/Pine-Richland game. NA a 14-point favorite. A bit much. #WPIAL
— Brad Everett (@BREAL412) September 4, 2014
POPCHOCK SAYS: Sigh…so much for preserving one of last bastions of innocence we have in American sports…
I know this isn’t the first rodeo for organized gambling on high school sports. Bets were once placed on a Seneca Valley-Penn Hills matchup, and on high school football in Texas and on the West Coast in years past–and let’s not forget the Joker’s infamous plot to fix the big game against Disko Tech. But a part of me always hoped, one day, our society would rise above that and keep it out of our high schools, instead of continuously degenerating.
The latest fad in high school football are aggressive, pass-happy offenses. The next one, at this rate, will be passive-aggressive fixing. At that level, it’s not that hard to disguise.
They just need Spicoli and Damone to give them a few pointers.
I’m Matt Popchock, and that’s all she wrote.
(h/t KDKA-TV, WTAE Operation Football, John Poole/FinestPreps.com and Hudl)
(Featured image of Pine-Richland senior tailback Connor Slomka courtesy of Randy Gore/QuadASports.com)