We’re one week from Thanksgiving, which also means that the high school football season is winding to a close. There are some great semi-final matchups this week from Quad-A down to Single-A. All four of our predicted champions are still alive. In fact, 13 of our original 16 predictions for semi-final teams were correct.
Gateway v. North Hills (@ Fox Chapel)
Gateway has been on a mission to avenge their championship game loss to Bethel Park all season. Now, one step away from Heinz Field, don’t expect them to blink. North Hills has pulled off two shocking upsets of McKeesport and North Allegheny, and now looks to go for the hat trick against #1 seed Gateway. North Hills won their first two games 19-7 and 14-10. Conversely, Gateway obliterated Plum 49-0 and Penn Hills 35-3. If North Hills is going to have a shot at shocking the world (or Western Pennsylvania), they are going to need an inspired defensive effort to keep the game close. Gateway features a slew of ridiculously talented players on both sides of the ball. On offense, RBs Orne Bey (745 yds, 11 TDs), Brandon Felder (583 yds, 17 TDs), and Markie’d Jones (477 yds, 7 TDs) and WRs Steve Vranka (741 yds, 11 TDs) and Dayonne Nunley (7 TDs) lead the charge. Bey and Felder combined for more touchdowns as a rushing duo this season than North Hills has as a team. Gateway quarterback Rob Kalkstein
is one of the winningest QBs in WPIAL history and had almost as many passing TDs this season as North Hills had total TDs. This is an obvious statistical mismatch, but one of the beauties of sports (and high school football in particular) is that anything can happen. North Hills is riding high after knocking off McKeesport and NA, so don’t be surprised if they give the Gators a good fight.
Woodland Hills v. Bethel Park (@ West Mifflin)
The WPIAL Game of the Week features two Quad-A powerhouses. Bethel is the defending champs and has won 23 of their last 24 WPIAL games. Their only loss? A 21-17 defeat at the hands of Woody High. Bethel had the ball inside the 5 with under a minute to play, but the Wolverines stood strong and kept the Blackhawks out of the end zone. This week’s rematch features two teams that are peaking. Bethel has won 5 straight games by 14 points or more. Woody High hasn’t had a game closer than 24 points since their first meeting with Bethel. Woody High has been led by their defense this season, which held Central Catholic to under 155 yards in the quarterfinals. Bethel has a lot of kids back from their WPIAL Championship team from last season and is intent on returning to Heinz Field. This is going to be a close game, and don’t be surprised if it comes down to the end once again.
Prediction: Woodland Hills
Thomas Jefferson v. West Allegheny (@ Chartiers Valley)
TJ has a 48-game winning streak and is looking to become the first team in WPIAL history to win 4 consecutive titles. This doesn’t mean that West Allegheny stands no chance. But honestly, unless TJ has an inordinate amount of penalties and/or turnovers, I just don’t see the Jaguars losing this one. Both of these teams have storied histories, with 8 AAA championships between the two in the last 12 years. But recently, it’s been all about TJ. They have won 4 of the last 5. This year’s TJ team lacks the star-power that last year’s PIAA champion had, but they still don’t have a chink in their armour. Quarterback Sam Johnston has 1,766 passing yards, 1,094 of those to receiver Jim Giansante. West Allegheny is a well-coached team that doesn’t make many mistakes. Led by RB Mike Caputo who has 1951 yards and 27 TDs this season, West Allegheny is going to play ball-control and try to keep TJ’s offense off the field. The problem with that is that TJ has the #1 defense in AAA, holding opponents to under 7 points per game. West Allegheny has the #3 offense in AAA and will give TJ their biggest challenge to date. In the end, we just can’t pick against TJ.
Prediction: Thomas Jefferson
Hopewell v. Hampton (@ Montour)
Hampton is making their first trip in school history to the semi-finals. Hopewell is not only expected to be here, they’re the only AAA team with a legitimate shot at knocking off TJ. Hopewell is led by sophomore running back Rushel Shell, who has almost 4,000 rushing yards in his two seasons of play. He has over 2,300 this season with 28 touchdowns. Hampton is coming off two emotional victories, an upset of #3 seed Chartiers Valley and a victory over Uniontown (the first Keystone Conference team to win a playoff game in 9 years). Hopewell has been destroying people with the run all season. They put up 33 points against Mars, the #2 defense in AAA, in the quarter finals. Hampton runs a power run game and will need to convert third downs to keep Shell off the field. Hopewell is a gritty team with WPIAL Wrestling Champion Matt Hundenski at QB. In the end, it’s been a great run for the Talbots, but Hopewell will just be too much.
Beaver Falls v. Aliquippa (@ Ambridge)
As we said last week, AA ball is all about what’s going on in Beaver County. This is the third matchup of these two teams in the last 12 months. They met in the AA title game last year with Aliquippa bringing home the championship. The Quips are one of the most storied programs in AA and, as South Fayette discovered last week, never out of a game. However, we like Beaver Falls with their strong running attack to control the game and ultimately earn their second consecutive trip to Heinz Field. The Tigers won the regular-season matchup between these two teams. Aliquippa has a young team that has grown up a lot this season, but we think Beaver Falls and their rushing attack with senior RB Cody Cook who has 541 rushing yards and 7 TDs in two playoff games.
Prediction: Beaver Falls
Keystone Oaks v. Greensburg Central Catholic (@ Elizabeth Forward)
If you like running the ball, you don’t want to miss this game. Keystone Oaks and GCC both have rushing attacks that would make Bruce Arians cringe. KO is making their first semi-final appearance in school history and is led by the two-headed monster of Matt McCann and Jordan Maddox. Maddox rushed for 207 yards and 3 TDs against Mt Pleasant last weekend. GCC star back David Miller reached the end zone 27 times this season. Miller has 764 yards and 11 touchdowns in GCC’s last three games. This game is going to come down to turnovers. Neither team is going to put the ball in the air unless they really have to, meaning that if either team puts the ball on the ground, they’re in trouble. GCC capitalized on 7 turnovers last week. In addition to Miller, GCC has Bowling Green recruit Trent Hurley, who threw for almost 1300 yards this season at quarterback. You can’t say enough about what senior leadership means at QB, and GCC has this. This is going to be a tough, physical game, but we’re still of the belief that KO is the best AA team outside of Beaver County, and we’re sticking with that.
Prediction: Keystone Oaks
Rochester v. North Catholic (@ Mars)
North Catholic is making their first semi-final appearance since 2001 when they played in AA. They were beaten by Beaver Falls in a run-heavy showdown at Pine-Richland. This year, they face the top-seeded Rochester Rams. Rochester has been a Class A powerhouse for over a decade. North’s program has been improving over the past few years, building a solid core of players, led by junior QB Martin Long. They used trick plays to beat Springdale last week and capitalized on 5 Springdale fumbles to earn their way to the semis. Rochester brutalized Brentwood on the ground. Ian will be making an appearance at this game, hoping to have another celebrity-sighting of the mayor. Ian will likely post updates on Twitter. Both these teams run wide open offenses with solid quarterbacks and good running games. North had the #4 offense and #7 defense in Class A this year. They’re going to have to score a lot to keep up with Rochester.
Realistic Prediction: Rochester
Homer Prediction: North Catholic
Laurel v. Clairton (@ Center)
Of the teams left in the Class A bracket, Laurel has played all three and beaten two of them. The #2 seed in Single-A was the only team to hold Clairton under 24 points this season, and the only team to score more than once on the Bears #1 ranked defense. However, their 15-8 victory came back in week 1, and both teams have progressed a lot since then. Laurel beat North Catholic 28-7 win week 2 and lost to Rochester 14-7 in early October. They were the only team to hold the Rams under 20 points this season. Clairton is battle-tested in the playoffs, but this will be their toughest foe yet. Laurel has the strength to stop them on defense. Look for this one to be a low-scoring affair with the defenses controlling the game. Clairton had 19 penalties in the first game between these two teams. That won’t happen again. Clairton hasn’t given up a point in the playoffs thus far, and Laurel won both games 55-7. Clairton is the defending champion and is our pick to bring home the trophy again.