Tyler Boyd stopped by Heinz Field a day early to see his alma mater return to the WPIAL throne for the sixth time in seven years. Pitt will be equally lucky to have whichever of its future commits comes off the Clairton assembly line. Sophomore tailback Lamont Wade, already, perhaps, the Bears’ best player, and already holding an offer from the Panthers, strapped his team to his back much the same as Boyd did a couple years ago. Junior receiver Aaron Mathews, who seems very likely to commit to Pitt, helped a stable passing attack that made the difference for Clairton by hauling in, before halftime, one of Ryan Williams’ four touchdown passes. Having fellow junior Harrison Dreher healthy helped the Bears too, and his effort, which included a late pick-six and a team-best five tackles, should arouse more D-I interest. He’s the kind of player who seems to excel at running around and being a pest, no matter what position he’s playing.
Duke Johncour and the ‘Lopes deserve high-fives for their season, even including Friday’s forgettable defeat. I originally picked them to reach the semifinals before losing to North Catholic in a game closer than the Trojans’ 28-0 regular season victory over their Black Hills Conference rivals. However, with an emergency quarterback guiding them most the way, they showed more spunk and more resolve against the former state champs and against, I suspect, the future state champs than most teams have all year. Josh Drwal’s 37-yard TD pass to Cole Jenkins, followed by a defensive stop and a fumble recovery near midfield, kept this game at least remotely interesting. Furthermore, Clairton didn’t convert a single third down. The problem was, it only had to attempt seven to Avonworth’s 18, while the underdogs went 0-for-7 on fourth down. Avonworth just couldn’t prevent the big play when it had to, and, unlike Clairton, it couldn’t make the big play when it had to.
We can argue hypotheticals at our own peril, but I do wonder if the ‘Lopes might have been able to keep it closer with a healthy Zach Chandler. Drwal competed well throughout the season despite having to play out of position, and his day ended with 142 yards from scrimmage, but it also ended with a staggering seven turnovers. He made costly decisions with the ball, though his performance also underscored Lamont Wade’s excellence. It’ll be a while, I would wager, before we see one player collect four interceptions in a championship game again.
What has annually separated Clairton from the rest of the field in Class A is its depth, despite poor numbers, and its raw skill. The Bears committed 12 penalties for 89 yards, and they turned the ball over twice, but they have enough talent to overcome the kind of mistakes that would sink most teams. That’s exactly what championship teams do: they overcome. A false start that forced the Bears into a 2nd-and-10 situation preceded Williams’ first TD pass, to Noah Hamlin. An encroachment foul on 4th-and-5 sustained an Avonworth drive in the first quarter with Clairton leading 12-7, but Wade quickly made up for it with the first of his four INTs. The ‘Lopes did not score off either turnover, and they gained only eight total yards on both those drives.
How many times have we seen under-the-radar athletes go off in championship games? That element of unpredictability is part of what makes the high school football championships fun. Receiver James Hines doesn’t get talked about as much as some of his other Bears brethren, but the Clairton senior had me saying his name and “hell of a play” in the same sentence after both of his touchdowns. His second quarter grab in particular, which extended his team’s lead to 20-7, was vaguely reminiscent of Boyd’s last-second catch for Pitt against New Mexico last year.
Every eventual champion needs to win ugly at some point. Every eventual champion has to have that “scared straight” experience in a game that sharpens the focus of the entire team going forward. When Clairton needed overtime to beat Neshannock in the semifinals, relying upon Lamont Wade to will his team to victory in incredible fashion, I was convinced the Bears would turn this game into a just-happy-to-be-there moment for what Johncour called a “never satisfied” Avonworth outfit. Still, when I asked Clairton head coach Wayne Wade to use his 20-20 hindsight, he didn’t see it that way:
Avonworth loses Drwal and running back/linebacker Brandon Wasko, who was noticeable even in defeat. But Chandler will get one more shot, key weapons Jamal Hughley and Cole Jenkins also return, and the line, in general, still looks on the young-ish side. The ‘Lopes should be pretty good again next year. Just don’t expect Clairton’s dynastic run to end anytime soon, judging by the youth on its own roster. It faces Berlin Brothersvalley, the District 5 champion, in the PIAA quarterfinals Friday at 7:00 p.m. EST at Elizabeth Forward High School, which will be the start of bigger and better things to come for the new Bears–same as the old Bears.