WPIAL Class AAAA Final: Six Takeaways and an Extra Point
Life evens out. It’s kind of like when you incur an unexpected expense on Christmas Eve, then, much to your surprise, your aunt slips a cool $50 in your stocking on Christmas Day. That’s what happened to Pittsburgh Central Catholic. In last year’s WPIAL Football Championships Pittsburgh Central Catholic saw an unusual ruling go its way that led to a touchdown, and this year an unusual ruling went against the Vikings that led to a touchdown. One goal of any official in a championship game should be to remain as inconspicuous as is prudent. In that respect, the crew covering this game failed. The inadvertent whistle rule that haunted Central Catholic, though, upon further review, properly enforced, also cheated it out of a turnover that could have affected the outcome. No solitary moment wins or loses any football game; all-purpose back Johnny Petrishen fumbled deep in Pine-Richland territory to begin the game, which was also a difference-maker. Unfortunately, Earnest Williams’ non-fumble fumble, so to speak, will be the play that at least one fanbase will be talking about for a while.
Pine-Richland will take on District 6 champion State College Saturday at 1:00 p.m. EST at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona, but fans can go ahead and start making plans for Hershey now. Head coach Eric Kasperowicz was a Parade All-American quarterback on North Hills’ last state championship squad in 1993, a team that beat its opponents in just about every way imaginable. Crow all you want about Clairton’s pursuit of PIAA scoring history. This Pine-Richland offense, judging by its merit and its competition, might be the best in Pennsylvania, and give Coach Kasper credit for cultivating it. Give him that much more credit, however, and give his team that much more credit for proving they could play any style, just like the ’93 Indians. If you thought this game would be scoreless at halftime, you just might be psychic. If you thought the Rams would buckle under pressure at that point, after everything they’ve shown this season, you just might be psychotic. They stayed patient long enough for future Penn quarterback Ben DiNucci to shake off typical Heinz Field jitters and factor in all three touchdowns to lead his team to gold. Whether or not the Rams could do what Central didn’t and hold their own against reigning state champ St. Joseph’s Prep, a likely forthcoming opponent, remains debatable. But Pine-Richland is well rounded and well coached enough to play for a state crown.
To wit, Central Catholic deserves kudos for, if anything, damage control. The defense that calls itself “The Chain Gang” (as evidenced by the colossal sign that was the first thing I saw when I returned to my seat) was one of the top units in the district throughout the season, and it showed even in defeat. The Vikings allowed Pine-Richland’s fluid, Oregonian offense to run just 50 plays. I caught up with lineman Rashad Wheeler earlier in the playoffs to discuss the origins of the “Chain Gang” nickname. He’ll be one to watch next season, and a big key for the Vikings will be how that defense retools without Petrishen and Joe Tindal, another fine shutdown corner. Considering they made it back to the Quad-A final despite losing a loaded senior class, somehow I get the feeling that defense will keep Central in the title conversation for years to come.
Last year Central won by out-toughing everybody. Pine-Richland, as previously suggested, won by matching Central’s style of play. Of equal importance, just as it was in the regular season meeting between these Northern Eight Conference rivals at Highmark Stadium, was Pine-Richland’s balance. Coach Totten’s head was in the right place by moving Petrishen from receiver to wildcat quarterback and getting perhaps his best skill position player more touches. But not having a dependable passing game proved to be this team’s undoing. Gunnar Frerotte and Mike Navarro each have one more year to mature, and Totten has some guys behind them who will be groomed. The Vikings, in the meantime, just didn’t do enough to take pressure off Petrishen. I, for one, would have liked to see Brian Totten carry more from the fullback spot–a play that has served Central well in the past. I also would have liked to see Ronnie Jones, who has shown elusiveness as a tailback and kick returner, get out in open space and see what happens.
Mike Merhaut is one extraordinary human. In retrospect, his winning TD in overtime at North Allegheny in Week 2 only scratched the surface of how great he would be this season. Pine-Richland’s senior receiver was the WPIAL’s top pass-catcher in 2014, and watching him help the Rams earn their first championship since the Neil Walker team in 2003 was like watching vintage Hines Ward on Sundays. The Rams may have matched the tenacity of Central Catholic up front, but the gritty six-yard TD by Merhaut that broke the scoreless deadlock early in the third quarter was all about his second effort. He finished with eight receptions for a game-best 114 yards, and I’ve got a feeling his heroics aren’t over yet.
Petrishen provided some of the best postgame sound, talking up a senior class that included starting center Eric McAllister, who joined him onstage. Conventional wisdom says he’ll play defensive back for either Pitt or Virginia next year, though he did also pick up an offer from Penn State Monday. But whichever college gets him will be getting a solid leader on and off the field. He’s got the talent, as evidenced by his 170 yards rushing on 34 carries out of the wildcat and his quietly strong play on the other side of the ball. He’s also got the right sense of accountability. The instant Central Catholic’s first ill-fated possession was mentioned, he pointed to himself. Good things happen to players at the next level who are willing to say “it’s on me,” even when it isn’t.
If Heinz Field staff are going to be sticklers about the transparency of one’s purse, what made that group of Pine-Richland students think it could get in with a live ram?! (No, seriously.) Anyway, glad to hear the little guy is okay, as reported by the Tribune-Review‘s Bill West.