The first group of Championship Games in the Six-Classification Era are set to kick off. Due to the fact that the champions of different WPIAL classifications enter the state playoffs at different levels, the WPIAL Championships will no longer all take place on one day. Friday’s games feature the four largest classifications with the Champions of 4A, 5A, and 6A entering the state playoffs at the quarterfinals next week. The WPIAL 3A Champion will receive a bye next week then begin play at the semifinal round of the PIAA playoffs. Since the WPIAL wanted to continue the tradition of having four games at Heinz Field, the 3A Championship is also this week (which was also the primary cause for only 8 3A teams making the playoffs which left Beaver out). Classes 1A and 2A are still in the semifinal stage which will take place on Saturday before their Championship Games at Robert Morris next weekend. I will have a separate preview of the 1A and 2A Semifinals coming tomorrow.
The cast of teams at Heinz Field this year is a familiar one as the defending AA, AAA, and Quad-A Champions return in their new classifications. Additionally, Bob Palko’s West Allegheny team returns to Heinz Field for the fourth time in five years. The Heinz Field stalwarts are being met by some new faces. Seneca Valley is making their first title game appearance since 1989, New Castle’s first since 1998, McKeesport’s first since 2005, and Beaver Falls’ first since 2008.
The first two Championship Games (the 3A game and 5A game) will be broadcast LIVE on Root Sports. Unfortunately, due to a Penguins game in the evening, Root Sports will not be showing the 4A and 6A games live but will show them on tape delay later in the night. If you’re setting your DVR to record them, make sure to give it some extra time as the Championship Games routinely run over the allotted TV time.
As always, MSA Sports will have live internet radio broadcasts of all four Championship Games. If you’re stuck at work and can’t watch TV, you can tune in to the live action on MSA Sports. Links to the broadcasts can be found >here<. A few friends of the blog will be calling the action as Josh Rowntree will have the call the 4A Championship between Thomas Jefferson and New Castle and Sam Hall will team up with Don Rebel for the in-house PA call.
On the social media side, I highly recommend following all of the following accounts for news, scores, and analysis throughout the day: @MSASports, @PGVarsityXtra, @TribHSInsider, @AJWPIAL, @bucfever422, @wpafootball, @mwhiteburgh, @KGorman_Trib (and of course you can follow me @thesteelersnat). Additionally, keep an eye on the #WPIAL hashtag for other commentary. All of the team, school, and student section accounts are listed below in each preview.
1. Central Catholic (6-0, 11-1) vs 6. Seneca Valley (3-3, 8-3)
How They Got Here: All four Northern Seven Conference teams that qualified for the playoffs won their first round games and met in the semifinals. Central Catholic blew out Pine-Richland while Seneca Valley edged North Allegheny by blocking an extra point as time expired.
Central Catholic has been the premier 6A team all season and have not lost to a WPIAL opponent. The Vikings only loss came in Week 0 to St John’s (DC). Since they moved into WPIAL play, the Vikings have boasted the top offense and defense in 6A. No WPIAL opponent has held them under 40 points and Pine-Richland has been the only team to score more than twice against the Vikings stout defense. Central Catholic is averaging over 50 points per game while allowing just 12 points against and no one has come within 28 points of them since Pine-Richland in Week 5.
Seneca Valley flew a bit under the radar this season after a 2-2 start where they lost big to Pine-Richland and Central Catholic (42-14 in Week 4). But the Warriors were battle-tested heading into the postseason and enter the Championship Game having won all 3 of their games that were decided by less than a touchdown. Seneca Valley topped Mt Lebanon in a shootout in the quarterfinals, holding on against a furious comeback at the end to win 49-43 then topped North Allegheny in dramatic fashion. Seneca Valley stopped multiple NA drives at the doorstep with an interception in the end zone to end the first half and a fumble recovery at the end of the third quarter that sparked a Seneca Valley touchdown drive to give them a 21-14 lead. North Allegheny tied the game with 5 and a half minutes to play but Seneca Valley responded with a touchdown drive that ended on a 22-yard pass to Hank Royal with 1:27 to go. North Allegheny marched back down the field and scored a touchdown with no time left on the clock but Seneca Valley blocked the extra point to hold on to a 28-27 victory and earn a trip to Heinz Field.
Recent History: Central Catholic is the defending AAAA State Champions and are making their fourth consecutive appearance at Heinz Field. This is Central’s 14th consecutive playoff appearance and 7th trip to Heinz Field over that span. Since 1980, the only playoff meeting between these two school came in the first round in 2009 with Central Catholic winning 35-0.
Seneca Valley lost to McKeesport in the first round of the playoffs last year after missing the playoffs in 2014. The Warriors reached the postseason for the fifth time in six years and did make the semifinals in 2012, which was also the last time Seneca Valley beat Central Catholic. This is Seneca Valley’s first trip to a WPIAL Championship Game since 1989.
Championship Pedigree: Central Catholic has won 5 WPIAL titles (including 2 of the last 3) in 2003, 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2015. Central also won the PIAA title in 1988, 2004, 2007, and 2015. Interestingly, Central Catholic did not win the WPIAL title in 1988 (they lost the Championship Game to Upper St Clair) but because Upper St Clair School District had decided not to compete in the PIAA Championships, Central Catholic took their place and won the title.
This is just the second Championship Game appearance in Seneca Valley’s history. The first was in 1989 when they lost the AAA Championship 17-9 to Aliquippa.
Dramatis Personae: Two of the Top 10 passers in 6A will face off in the 6A Championship in Central Catholic’s Troy Fisher and Seneca Valley’s Jack Cook. Cook has thrown for 1822 yards and 19 TDs this season while rushing for 626 yards and 14 scores. Fellow senior Hank Royal has led the rushing attack with 1226 yards and added 508 receiving yards and scored 23 TDs. The Warriors running game has been successful behind offensive tackle Eric Hudanick who has a few offers from Division 2 schools. Cook’s top targets have been senior WR Payton Skalos (615 yards, 8 TDs) and TE Jake Holl (421 yards, 2 TDs).
Central Catholic QB Troy Fisher has also been a dual threat this season, throwing for 1338 yards and 18 TDs and rushing for 458 yards and 9 TDs. Outside of Fisher, the Vikings two most talented offensive playmakers have been RB JJ Younger and WR Justice Evans. Younger has rushed for 1220 yards behind the Vikings massive offensive line and added 109 receiving yards and scored a team-high 24 TDs. Evans leads the Vikings in receiving with 623 yards and has rushed for 150 more and scored 16 times. Central Catholic is absolutely loaded with Division 1 recruits, including along their offensive line where all 5 starters have received D1 offers. OT CJ Thorpe has committed to Penn State, Jake Trautman has committed to Fordham, Donovan Slater and Jacob Hinish have committed to Yale, and David Green has offers from Syracuse and WVU. On defense, LB David Adams and DT Kurt Hinish have both committed to Notre Dame. Linebacker Shane Ferrick has an offer from Dayton and LB Timothy Terry has been offered by a number of MAC schools. In the secondary, Evan Frazier and Rodney Thomas have offers from FCS schools.
1. West Allegheny (8-0, 11-0) vs 3. McKeesport (6-2, 9-2)
How They Got Here: West Allegheny started the season slow, not topping 24 points in three low-scoring victories. Bug in Week 4, the Indians caught fire and stormed through the rest of the regular season, averaging 40 points per game over their next 8 games and entered the playoffs as the only undefeated team in 5A. The Indians have the second-best offense (35 points per game) and best defense (8 points against per game) in 5A and only North Hills has scored more than twice against them. West A won two conference rematches to get here, a 41-21 victory over North Hills in the quarterfinals and a 35-7 romp of Woodland Hills last week.
McKeesport finished second in the Big East Conference, losing to Conference Champion Armstrong on a Zane Dudek two-point conversion in Overtime in Week 2 and a 20-10 defeat to Penn-Trafford in Week 9. The Tigers rebounded to roll to a 31-10 victory over Upper St Clair in the first round of the playoffs. Last week McKeesport topped archrival Gateway in thrilling fashion. The teams traded scores all night with Gateway’s passing attack matching McKeesport’s ground game. QB Jayvaun Shears gave McKeesport a 35-31 lead with 5 1/2 minutes to play but Gateway came back and scored a go-ahead touchdown with 34 seconds left. Coming into the game, Shears had averaged just 4.5 passes per game coming into the contest and his third attempt of the game came as a hail mary as time expired. Layton Jordan caught the pass inside the 10 and was swarmed by Gateway defenders but managed to lateral to JJ Harper who took it into the end zone to give McKeesport a stunning 41-38 victory.
Recent History: West Allegheny is making their 8th consecutive playoff appearance and 19th in the last 20 years. This is their fourth trip to Heinz Field in the last five seasons with their only miss coming last year when they lost to Thomas Jefferson in the quarterfinals.
McKeesport is making their 19th consecutive playoff appearance but this is their first trip to Heinz Field since they won the 2005 WPIAL title. In each of the last two seasons, the Tigers lost to the team that reached the AAAA Championship, falling to Pine-Richland in 2014 and Penn-Trafford last year.
Championship Pedigree: West Allegheny Coach Bob Palko has won more WPIAL titles than any other coach with seven. The Indians won the WPIAL AAA Championship in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2012, and 2013. Their 2014 loss to Central Valley is the only time Palko has ever lost at Heinz Field. West Allegheny also won the 2001 PIAA Championship on the arm of Tyler Palko.
McKeesport has won four WPIAL Championships. They shared the 1932 title with Jeannette and New Castle as there was not a Championship Game played. The Tigers won the 1938 AAA Championship and won both the WPIAL and PIAA Quad-A titles in 1994 and 2005.
Dramatis Personae: West Allegheny and McKeesport have utilized two distinctly different style of offense to reach the title game. West Allegheny has relied on their passing game with senior QB Nick Ross throwing for 1870 yards and 12 TDs, the second most passing yards in 5A. Ross’ primary targets have been junior WR Brandon Lipford (659 yards, 10 TDs), sophomore TE Mateo Vandamia (464 yards, 3 TDs), and senior WR Joey Diven (239 yards, 2 TDs). Junior RB Kenny White has led the Indians with 957 yards and 18 TDs with occasional relief from Willy Weber (369 yards, 8 TDs). Lipford is 3rd in 5A in receiving yards and White is 5th in rushing yards. Offensive and defensive lineman Kieran Firman has committed to Colorado State and might be the first player from Western Pennsylvania to attend CSU.
On the other hand, McKeesport has featured a wishbone triple-option attack. Senior QB Jayvaun Shears is averaging just over 4 pass attempts per game but has thrown for 470 yards and 4 TDs. Shears leads the team in rushing with 1113 yards and 23 TDs, the third most yards in 5A. Junior RB Layton Jordan is the second-leading rusher with 670 yards and leading receiver with 142 yards and has scored 6 times. Fellow junior Carlinos Acie has 564 rushing yards, 109 receiving yards and has scored 9 TDs. JJ Harper and Breon Green have also factored into the offensive attack, combining for over 800 yards of total offense and 7 TDs. The Tigers feature a defense with Division 1 recruits at all three levels. On the defensive front, interior lineman Curtis Harper has committed to Syracuse while edge rusher Antoine Cook has committed to Youngstown State. Safety Breon Green and Jayvaun Shears both have offers from FCS schools and defensive lineman Jehrod Gregory has offers from a few D-II schools.
1. Thomas Jefferson (8-0, 11-0) vs 7. New Castle (6-2, 8-4)
How They Got Here: Thomas Jefferson has not lost to a WPIAL opponent since Week 2 of last season. The Jaguars rolled through the regular season with the best offense and best defense in 4A, averaging 49 points per game and allowing just 5 points per game. TJ has pitched 6 shutouts in 11 games and no team has scored more than twice against them. No one has held them under 35 points this season, though they have scored a season-low 35 in each of their last 3 games. TJ won the Big Nine Conference title with a 35-14 win over West Mifflin in Week 9 then routed Montour 35-0 in the quarterfinals and won a rematch with rival West Mifflin 35-7 in the semifinals.
New Castle finished third in the Northwest Nine Conference and needed to win a Casket Match with Blackhawk in Week 9 just to get to the postseason. Prior to their victory over Blackhawk, the Red Hurricanes had lost 3 of 4 including a non-conference game to Ringgold which prompted the WPIAL seeding committee to drop them to the 7th seed, below Ringgold. The playoffs were a revenge tour for New Castle, topping undefeated Conference Champions South Fayette 51-43 in a quarterfinals shootout and beating Ringgold 38-17 in the semifinals. New Castle boasts the 4th best offense in 4A at 34 points per game and it has carried them through this 3-game winning streak to the title game.
Recent History: Thomas Jefferson won the AAA title last season and was the premier AAA school for the past two decades. The Jaguars are tied with Aliquippa for the longest playoff streak in the WPIAL at 22 consecutive seasons. TJ reached at least the semifinals in 18 of the last 19 years and is making their second consecutive trip to Heinz Field.
New Castle made their 4th consecutive playoff appearance this season and earned their first playoff victory since 2009. The Red Hurricanes have never played in a Championship Game at Heinz Field and their last title game appearance came in 1998 at Three Rivers Stadium.
Championship Pedigree: Thomas Jefferson is the defending AAA Champions and have won 6 WPIAL titles and 3 PIAA titles. The Jaguars won the WPIAL Championships in 1980, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2015 and won the PIAA Championship in 2004, 2007, and 2008.
New Castle is the winningest program in WPIAL football history and has claim to 11 WPIAL Championships. New Castle beat Charleroi in the 1924 AAA Championship Game. In 1932 they tied Jeanette and McKeesport for the AAA title as there was no Championship Game played. New Castle was awarded the 1933 and 1934 titles based on Gardner Points and won Championship Games in 1942, 1948, 1949, 1967, and 1973. In 1975 New Castle played Upper St Clair to a 0-0 tie in the Championship Game as there was no overtime. Their most recent trip to a WPIAL Championship was in 1998 when they beat North Allegheny 14-7.
Dramatis Personae: Thomas Jefferson has featured one of the most balanced attacks in the WPIAL with a 1500-yard passer and 1500-yard rusher. The Jaguars successful run over the last two seasons coincided with Bobby Kelley taking over the quarterback position. This season, he has thrown for 1527 yards and 31 TDs, the third-most yards and most passing TDs in 4A. Senior RB Quinton Hill leads Class 4A in rushing with 1573 yards and 26 TDs and has scholarship offers from a few FCS schools. On the outside, TJ features Virginia-commit Zane Zandier (739 yards, 16 TDs) who is third in 4A in receiving. Kelley’s other main target has been Jon Muehlbauer (553 yards, 12 TDs) who has a handful of offers from FCS schools.
New Castle also features two high quality Division 1 talents in Geno Stone and Marcus Hooker. Both are being recruited as defensive backs but are also the two primary playmakers on offense. Stone, a dual-threat QB, has thrown for 1429 yards (the fifth-most in 4A) and 17 TDs and rushed for 693 yards and a team-leading 18 TDs. Hooker, a junior and the younger brother of Ohio State safety Malik Hooker, has rushed for 789 yards and is second on the team in receiving with 363 yards and has scored 17 times. Senior WR Garrett Farah leads the Red Hurricanes in receiving with 739 yards and 8 TDs. Junior Lorenzo Gardner has been an all-around threat, accounting for over 670 yards of total offense and scoring 6 TDs. Stone is being recruited by a number of FCS schools and has FBS offers from Army, Navy, and Kent State as a safety where he has 10 interceptions this season. Marcus Hooker is only a junior but already has offers from a few FBS schools.
1. Aliquippa (5-1, 10-2) vs 2. Beaver Falls (5-1, 10-1)
How They Got Here: This was an atypical regular season for Aliquippa in that it was the first time since 2009 that the Quips lost a regular season game. In addition to their Week 3 loss to Beaver (which was their first regular season and conference loss since 2009), the Quips lost an inter-classification game to Clairton, marking the first time since 2008 that Aliquippa lost two games in a season. The Quips defeated Central Valley in Week 8 to secure a playoff spot in the tough Beaver Valley Conference and held on in Week 9 to beat Hopewell to secure the Conference Title. Aliquippa rolled through a rematch with South Park in the first round of the playoffs then defeated Derry, the only unbeaten team in 3A, 46-20 in the semifinals.
Beaver Falls is the hottest team in 3A and have not lost since their 44-13 Week 1 loss to Aliquippa. Since then, Beaver Falls has averaged 38 points per game and no team has scored more than 21 against them. The Tigers defeated Beaver 20-15 in Week 9 to secure a playoff spot and knock Beaver (the #1 3A team in the state) out of playoff contention. The Tigers defeated Mt Pleasant 42-14 then scored a game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left to defeat Keystone Oaks 28-21 in the semifinals.
Recent History: Aliquippa is tied with Thomas Jefferson for the longest current playoff streak in the WPIAL at 22 consecutive seasons. This is the 9th straight season the Quips have reached Heinz Field. They are the defending AA Champions. This is the third meeting between these two schools in the WPIAL football playoffs since 2001 with Aliquippa holding a 2-1 advantage, including a victory in the 2008 Championship Game. The rivalry between these two schools extends beyond the football field as they have met a number of times in the WPIAL basketball playoffs and championship games.
Beaver Falls is making their 10th consecutive playoff appearance and reached at least the semifinals 6 times in that span. This is their first trip to Heinz Field since they lost in back-to-back title games in 2007 and 2008. Prior to Aliquippa losing to Clairton and Beaver this year, Beaver Falls was the last WPIAL team to beat the Quips outside of Heinz Field (back in 2009).
Championship Pedigree: Aliquippa has won the most WPIAL Championships of any school (16). The Qupis won the WPIAL AAA Championship in 1952, 1955, 1964, 1984, 1987, 1988, an 1989. They won the WPIAL AA Championship in 1991, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2015. Aliquippa also won two PIAA AA Championships in 1991 and 2003.
Beaver Falls has won 3 WPIAL football titles, the most recent coming in 1984 with a 14-13 victory over Riverside in the AA Championship. Additionally, the Tigers were awarded the 1928 and 1960 WPIAL titles based on Gardner Points with no Championship Game played. Beaver Falls is making their third trip to Heinz Field but have never hoisted the trophy there, falling to Washington in 2001, Jeannette in 2007, and Aliquippa in 2008.
Dramatis Personae: At their heart, these archrivals are two power running teams that are going to go head-to-head and slog it out for 48 minutes. Aliquippa had a pair of backs top the 1000-yard mark and rely heavily on their ground game. Senior Davion Jones has rushed for 1242 yards and 16 TDs while sophomore Avante McKenzie has rushed for 1131 yards and 13 TDs. The big news out of Aliquippa recently was that QB Kwantell Raines was no longer with the team. Last week, junior Tariq Jones and sophomore Eli Kosanovich split the quarterbacking duties but only needed to attempt 8 passes because of how dominant the Quips were on the ground. Tariq Jones has rushed for 403 yards and 3 TDs on the season. Junior RB Kiyon Fooks has seen his playing time increase as the season has gone on and averaged nearly 8 yards per carry and scored 3 TDs. The Quips don’t throw much, but when they do it is usually to Antwan Brooks, Thomas Perry, or Bobby Cashaw who are all averaging over 14 yards per catch and have combined for over 400 yards and 7 TDs on the season.
Beaver Falls has utilized a running back by committee approach and have seen four different backs be very successful. Malik Shepherd, who has a handful of FBS offers, leads the team in rushing and receiving with 853 rushing yards, 195 receiving yards and has scored 10 TDs. Neshaud Akins has gotten the most carries and has run for 776 yards and 9 TDs. Derrell Carter, who has some FCS and FBS offers, has 645 rushing yards, 179 receiving yards and 8 TDs. Torian Leak has rushed for 539 yards but is tied for the team lead with 10 TDs. Wide Receivers Nate Stratton (188 yards, 5 TDs) and Daylin Brickner (181 yards, 4 TDs) are both averaging over 21 yards per reception. Beaver Falls will throw the ball more than Aliquippa, and QB Austin French has thrown for 847 yards and 10 TDs despite averaging just 9 pass attempts per game. The Tigers also feature one of the top defensive players in the entire WPIAL in defensive lineman Donovan Jeter who recently made news by switching his commitment from Notre Dame to Michigan.