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I’m Matt Popchock, and I’m just getting started.
Central Valley senior athlete Jordan Whitehead says: His halfback option pass that helped put away West Allegheny and secure the Parkway Conference title wasn’t exactly like his coaches drew it up:
Quarterback John George, facing pressure, threw to Johnson on the go, and the latter made a pretty one-handed catch, keeping his balance long enough to jump over a West Allegheny defender and pass the line to gain.
“Hurdling” is illegal in WPIAL football. As Central Valley head coach Mark Lyons alluded, we’ve already seen Whitehead incur a hurdling penalty earlier this season, against Penn Hills:
In summary, if the ball-carrier jumps over a defender diving at him in an effort to make a tackle, which appeared, from my vantage point, to be the case here, that is not “hurdling.” However, if the ball-carrier jumps over a defender still standing in an upright position, that is “hurdling.”
West Allegheny head coach Bob Palko was beside himself at the time. He ran all the way down to where Johnson was brought down to lock horns with officials over the non-call.
Maybe, from Palko’s angle, it looked like his team’s would-be tackler was in an upright position when Johnson leaped over him? Anyway, he’s no weekend warrior. He’s one of the most successful high school football coaches in Pennsylvania, and he’s not the kind of guy to get so visibly upset about anything. But we can never put it past any coach to misinterpret any rule, especially one that is rarely enforced.
For all the heat PIAA officials take over the course of a season, I’m giving this crew credit for knowing the rule and making an astute non-call. Furthermore, I’m giving Lyons credit for figuring out how to beat West A.
This Central Valley squad is scary. Whitehead still has a big play or two in him. Johnson is a workhorse. George has been very consistent, and he’s got good receivers. Plus, the defense is very physical and not easily outsmarted. Off the top of your head, can you remember the last time someone held West A’s wildcat offense to so few points?
Somehow I suspect these teams have not seen the last of each other. I also suspect we will see another, much bigger Central Valley celebration in a few weeks, because the Warriors, you might say, have just cleared a big hurdle.
On that ominous note, let’s get to my comprehensive WPIAL playoff picks for all four classifications:
CLASS A FIRST ROUND (All games hosted by higher seed Friday at 7:30 p.m. EDT):
(1) Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic vs. (16) Avella
(8) Frazier vs. (9) South Side Beaver
(4) Beth-Center vs. (13) Riverside
(5) Avonworth vs. (12) Mapletown
(2) Clairton vs. (15) Chartiers-Houston
(7) Shenango vs. (10) Springdale
(3) Neshannock vs. (14) Greensburg Central Catholic
(6) Jeannette vs. (11) Brentwood
POPCHOCK SAYS: Future D-I prospect Lamont Wade will carry Clairton to another blowout win, and similar running by Springdale tailback Austin Kline will set up a quarterfinal matchup between two teams that share recent postseason history. Quarterback Frank Antuono has boosted Neshannock (hey, Schaasy, told you I wouldn’t forget Lawrence County!) to No. 4 in the WPIAL rankings for total offense, putting the Lancers in position to tangle with Jeannette in the next round. Dual-threat QB Julian Batts poses quite a threat, but Neshannock’s strong team defense will carry it through to another semifinal berth against the Bears. The Dynamos won’t pose any threat to Clairton, which should be able to capitalize on turnovers and use short fields to put the Lancers away early as well, and get ready to meet defending champion Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic at Heinz Field. The Trojans, meanwhile, should make quick work of Avella, and I’m interested to see what running backs P.J. Fulmore and Jerome Turner do against Frazier in the quarterfinals. Timothy Carson has enjoyed a fine season defensively for the Commodores, who quietly finished fourth in the WPIAL in total defense. Still, North Catholic finished two spots better, and it will earn a rematch with Black Hills Conference runner-up Avonworth in the semifinals. Backup quarterback Josh Drwal will lead the ‘Lopes past Mapletown, and although Class A rushing runner-up Anthony Welsh should have a big night for Beth-Center against Riverside, Avonworth’s defense will steal the show in the quarterfinals. Alas, as previously hinted, I believe, once again, conference rival North Catholic will handle Avonworth, this time in a closer game. The Class A Final will be a lower-scoring contest than what record-breaking Clairton is used to, but I think, at that point, losing all those members of last year’s championship squad will finally catch up to the Trojans. The Bears have impressive athletes, they have the talent to overcome mistakes, and they have the defensive swagger North Catholic displayed last year. I’ll take Clairton over Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic to give the Bears a sixth WPIAL title in seven years.
CLASS AA FIRST ROUND (All games hosted by higher seed Friday at 7:30 p.m. EDT):
(1) South Fayette vs. (16) Waynesburg
(8) Beaver vs. (9) South Park
(4) Highlands vs. (13) New Brighton
(5) Seton-LaSalle vs. (12) McGuffey at Chartiers Valley High School
(2) Aliquippa vs. (15) Kittanning
(7) Mount Pleasant vs. (10) Shady Side Academy
(3) Washington vs. (14) Steel Valley
(6) Apollo-Ridge vs. (11) Beaver Falls
POPCHOCK SAYS: I hate to spill the beans so soon, but I’m predicting two of the WPIAL title games will be rematches of last year’s, and Class AA will be one of them. Anyway, the circuitous journey that returning champion South Fayette and returning finalist Aliquippa will take to Heinz Field will not be the same, so let’s take a look at how they might get there. First, history will be made, as future Pitt tight end Nick Bowers leads Kittanning against the Quips in what projects to be the last football game ever for the Armstrong County program, which will merge with Ford City to become the Armstrong Riverhawks next year. The Quips will advance behind their running game, featuring another Pitt recruit, Kaezon Pugh, and new teammate DiMantae Bronaugh. With Trevor Salopek dominating on both sides of the ball, Mount Pleasant should win a similar battle of attrition with Shady Side Academy, but the Vikings won’t get further. What makes this branch of the Class AA tree fascinating, however, is that Aliquippa’s semifinal victim–er, opponent–could be a number of teams. My upset special is Steel Valley over Washington; tailback Dewayne Murray is one of the WPIAL’s brightest and highest-scoring young stars, and he’ll only get better. Apollo-Ridge drew a potentially entertaining matchup with Beaver Falls, but the two-headed monster of Duane Brown and Pitt commit Tre Tipton will be too much for the Tigers. A quarterfinal matchup between Steel Valley and Apollo-Ridge would be a toss-up. Two aforementioned heads are better than one (A-R ranked second in the WPIAL in total offense), but the potential exists for Murray to give that defense problems. Then again, Interstate champ Washington also has a great running back in Malik Wells, and the Prexies could take them all and prove me wrong. For now, though, I’ll say Aliquippa makes it a moot point by beating Apollo-Ridge for a trip to Heinz Field. Brett Brumbaugh has already enjoyed one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in WPIAL history, having broken records for career touchdowns and yardage, and neither Waynesburg nor Beaver will be able to handle South Fayette’s passing game. On the bright side, look for the Bobcats to enjoy one last hurrah in front of their fans against South Park, as Darius Wise is one of the most under-hyped dual-threat QBs in the area. Highlands earned my respect by winning a brutal Allegheny Conference, and I think the Golden Rams, like Apollo-Ridge, will reverse that section’s playoff misfortunes with a semifinal berth. New Brighton won’t be an easy out, but Highlands has a lot of heart, and tailback Elijah Jackson, the heart of its offense, will have a nice night after finishing fifth in WPIAL rushing. Seton-LaSalle, like Century rival South Fayette, has an exceptional quarterback, Tyler Perone. The Rebels have also impressed defensively this season, which will be good enough to beat McGuffey. I just can’t shake that funny feeling I have about Highlands. But Joe Rossi’s Lions can play defense, too, and Brumbaugh will continue climbing the statistical ladder to the North Shore. The Quips will be a smarter opponent this time, but I remain skeptical they’ll be a better one. The Lions are still just as well peopled as they are well coached, and I’ll take South Fayette over Aliquippa again. In a similar game with plenty of fireworks, the Lions will keep their crown by making big plays when they have to and frustrating the Quips into making costly mistakes.
CLASS AAA FIRST ROUND (All games hosted by higher seed Friday at 7:30 p.m. EDT):
(1) Central Valley vs. (16) Laurel Highlands
(8) Indiana vs. (9) West Mifflin
(4) Hampton vs. (13) New Castle
(5) Ringgold vs. (12) Gateway
(2) Thomas Jefferson vs. (15) Moon
(7) Montour vs. (10) Mars
(3) West Allegheny vs. (14) Knoch
(6) Franklin Regional vs. (11) Belle Vernon
POPCHOCK SAYS: Pitt commit Jordan Whitehead will get to play at what will be his home stadium for the next four years (if not fewer). Conference champion and 2013 WPIAL Class AAA finalist Central Valley will extend the Parkway’s streak of sending at least one team to the title game to nine years. The Warriors won’t be alone, but I’ll get to that shortly. The third-highest scoring team in the WPIAL should have no trouble lighting up the scoreboard against Laurel Highlands. DiAngelo Mitchell won the WPIAL rushing title at West Mifflin, which should set up an interesting quarterfinal when the Titans sneak past Indiana. The deep and balanced Central Valley offense, with versatile John George throwing to top target B.J. Powell, will keep West Mifflin off balance, and semifinal opponent Hampton will have its hands full with Whitehead. Part of the Talbots’ surprising run has been their No. 5 WPIAL ranking in total defense, putting them ahead of three of last year’s four district champions. Offensively, they do a great job getting everyone involved, and OL-turned-QB Nick Grabowski has authored one heck of an individual story this year. Once they conquer New Castle, another premier dual-threat passer, Quad Law of Ringgold, will test the Talbots after ending Tom Nola’s first season at Gateway, but you know what they say about defense winning championships. Nevertheless, Central Valley will stop Hampton short of Heinz Field not just because of its own defense, but because I don’t think we’ve seen Whitehead at his best yet. In the meantime, we know tailback Austin Kemp is just as eager to get back in the end zone for Thomas Jefferson, which will roll over Moon to set up a quarterfinal showdown with Montour. Spartans running back David Haseleu will command the attention of ROOT Sports’ cameras against Mars in the first round, but he’ll be no match for Bill Cherpak’s defense. Knoch, similarly, will be no match for Bob Palko’s wildcat offense, as West Allegheny will easily shrug off its Week 9 loss to CV. Greg Botta will coach up his Panthers well enough to get Franklin Regional into the quarterfinals with the Indians; Brett Zanotto and that running game will wear down Belle Vernon. Still, West A won’t really be tested until it collides with TJ in the semifinals. Both teams’ coaches know how to win such games, and I feel heretical picking against either one of them, but in this case I have to give the champs the benefit of the doubt. This sets the stage for another epic championship rematch like the one I forecast in Class AA, and whoever holds the ball last will probably win. I shall boldly go with Central Valley over West Allegheny, because the Warriors proved they were the best team in that conference, and because the best team in that conference also happens to have its best player.
CLASS AAAA FIRST ROUND (All games hosted by higher seed Friday at 7:30 p.m. EDT):
(1) Pine-Richland vs. (16) Connellsville
(8) Altoona vs. (9) Bethel Park
(4) Penn Hills vs. (13) Plum
(5) McKeesport vs. (12) Mount Lebanon
(2) Penn-Trafford vs. (15) Fox Chapel
(7) North Allegheny vs. (10) Upper St. Clair
(3) Pittsburgh Central Catholic vs. (14) Norwin at Cupples Stadium
(6) Woodland Hills vs. (11) North Hills
POPCHOCK SAYS: I might as well pin my Quad-A bracket to a wall and throw a dart at it. I’m proceeding with my final batch of picks at my own peril, because I genuinely believe there’s a handful of teams that all have the same shot of winning at Heinz Field. If you’re looking for feel-good stories, look no further than Pine-Richland, which might have the most dangerous offense in the classification. WPIAL passing leader Ben DiNucci is very poised in the pocket when throwing to the district’s top receiver, Mike Merhaut, and Connor Slomka is a very athletic tailback. The Rams, who have really turned a corner under Eric Kasperowicz, look primed for at least a semifinal berth. Connellsville will be summarily dismissed, and Altoona will as well. Going to Mansion Park gives Bethel Park the most onerous road trip of the first round, but Alex Minton will outrun Eli Mencer to key a Hawks win. Keeping up with P-R in the quarterfinals will be a different story. Meanwhile, Penn Hills boasts the top rushing attack in the WPIAL, featuring mobile QB Billy Kisner and tailback Te’Shan Campbell, which should put down a feisty Plum squad. Mount Lebanon presents a formidable challenge for McKeepsort, but the flex-bone will not be denied, as Pitt recruit Khaleke Hudson, who finished sixth in WPIAL scoring, will carry the Tigers all the way to the semifinals. They rode shotgun to Penn-Trafford in the Foothills Conference, but since, as I said, there’s no clear-cut favorite in Quad-A, I’m banking on at least one of the finalists not being an obvious candidate. Therefore, I’ll be brave and pick McKeesport to upset P-R in a track meet of a semifinal. Penn-Trafford, meanwhile, will abruptly end Fox Chapel’s season before North Allegheny puts Upper St. Clair out of its misery and then turns the tables on the Warriors. Brett Laffoon has developed into a dependable quarterback, Timmy Vecchio is an effective receiver, and Devin Austin makes Penn-Trafford’s offense a very well rounded one. Laffoon’s counterpart, Jeff Clemens, can hurt you as much with his legs as his arm, and preferred target Clay Byerly is part of an NA defense that is highly underrated. I’ll be shocked if Riley Trueman doesn’t make another game-changing play before that team’s season ends. After careful consideration, I’ve decided reigning WPIAL champ and Northern Eight rival Pittsburgh Central Catholic will be the team to end it. First, the Vikings will close the book on Norwin, another feel-good story, then they’ll have to deal with Woodland Hills in the quarterfinals. North Hills never quits, but Penn State commit Miles Sanders is finally healthy enough to make a playoff run with the Wolverines, and that makes George Novak’s team scary. That Central-Woody quarterfinal affair, a rematch of last year’s championship game, is a coin-flip proposition. It has the potential to be the most exciting game of the WPIAL postseason. At the beginning of the year I would have picked Woody High, but Central has shown me, one game aside, it’s better equipped for the rigors of another long playoff run than I thought. I’ll be keeping my eye on rising star Ronnie Jones and taking the Vikings in a tight one. Furthermore, Pitt recruit Johnny Petrishen and fellow defensive back Joe Tindal have been integral to Central’s outstanding defense, which will shut down NA in the semifinals. It won’t let Hudson run all over Heinz Field, either. In a Class AAAA season marked by breakout performances on offense, defense will lift Pittsburgh Central Catholic over McKeesport for another title.
I’m Matt Popchock, and that’s all she wrote. Enjoy your games, and I’ll see you in the quarterfinals!