PITTSBURGH – North Allegheny’s black and gold uniforms bore that of a slightly old-school look, with a triple stripe pattern on the sleeve and a thick double stripe pant pattern.
And for the first 24 minutes of the WPIAL AAAA championship game, North Allegheny gave Woodland Hills an old-fashioned butt kicking. However, it nearly wasn’t enough.
The Tigers’ Clay Bunting intercepted Wolverine quarterback Pat Menifee with 17 seconds left in the game to preserve North Allegheny’s (12-1) 21-14 victory despite a furious comeback effort by Woodland Hills (9-4). With the victory, the Tigers will advance to the PIAA playoffs, where they will face District 6/9/10 AAAA subregional champion State College Area (7-6) Friday, December 3 at Pine-Richland High School.
The WPIAL championship victory was North Allegheny’s first since 1990 and second title in six appearances since 1983. The 21 points scored was the most NA scored in any of those appearances, topping a 15-point effort in the 1996 title tilt against, of all teams, Woodland Hills.
And Tigers’ head coach Art Walker had his game plan predetermined.
“I had my mind made up that we were going to play-action it and throw early to loosen them up,” Walker said. “Because I knew they’d load up the box and try to stop the run.”
The plan worked. Senior quarterback Mike Buchert, who entered the game with just 862 pass yards, opened the first half 6-of-6 for 137 yards and two touchdowns – passes of 3 yards to Purdue commit Rob Kugler and 18 yards to James Kleinhampl. Those scoring strikes helped North Allegheny build a 14-0 lead with 6:29 left in the first half.
In fact, the Tigers’ opening drive was set up by two beautiful play-action passes from Buchert to wideout Dan Slivka, spanning 45 and 33 yards. Slivka finished the game with three catches for 105 yards.
“We didn’t think they would pass the ball that much,” said Woodland Hills head coach George Novak. “They caught us a couple of times on bad coverages.”
The Woodland Hills’ defense, to put it mildly, wasn’t at its best in the first half. Not only were the Wolverines gouged for 229 yards of offense on just 27 NA plays, but the turquoise and black committed three enchroachment penalties and had six total flags against them in the first 24 minutes. Additionally, a 46-yard pass from Menifee to Shakim Alonzo to the NA 5 yard line resulted in a fumble on the very next play, thwarting a potential scoring opportunity.
Woodland Hills had only 25 rushing yards on 16 carries at halftime and 74 yards of total offense.
Alex Papson’s 43-yard touchdown run with 2:56 left in the opening half pushed the Tigers’ advantage to 21-0, and it appeared the rout was on. But stop the presses, because in the second half, Woodland Hills awakened, both offensively and defensively.
Menifee hit Alonzo for a 46-yard touchdown pass to break the Tigers’ shutout with 4:35 left in the third quarter, slicing the 21-point margin to just 14 after Sam Scifo’s extra point.
And North Allegheny was minus its featured tailback. Papson was having his shoulder examined on the sideline during the third quarter and he did not return to the game, finishing the night with 123 yards on 22 carries.
NA’s troubles continued to mount as a bad snap on a punt sailed over the head of sophomore backup Jack Henderson, losing 27 yards and giving WH life at the Tiger 24.
Woodland Hills wasted no time. Lafayette Pitts (18 rushes, 49 yards) darted 24 yards for a touchdown on the very next play, bringing the Wolverines to within a possession and the crowd on the visiting side of the stadium to life.
But that was as close as Woodland Hills would get.
“You want to play against a team when they’re at their best,” Novak said. “(It would have been nice) if the defense had played that way with him (Papson) out there.
“I’m proud of them (WH) for their effort. They hung in until the end and didn’t quit,” Novak added. “But we made our share of mistakes.”
Menifee finished with 112 passing yards on a 5-of-16 night and also ran for 14 yards on nine carries. Alonzo had the two receptions for 92 yards and fullback Alfonzo Strozier added 36 yards on four attempts. Woodland Hills finished with 206 yards of offense and two turnovers, along with nine penalties for 55 yards.
North Allegheny amassed 268 yards of offense and 15 first downs, split almost evenly rushing (131) as passing (137). Buchert finished 6-of-9 passing and ran 12 times for just 3 yards. Fullback Nick Passodelis added 15 yards on 3 carries and Vinnie Codengo had 8 yards on 5 carries in relief of Papson.
After hafltime, North Allegheny managed just 39 yards of offense and one solitary first down.
But it mattered little to Walker, who won his third WPIAL title as a head coach (and fourth if you count the title as West Allegheny’s offensive coordinator in 1997).
“It means a lot,” Walker said of winning the title. “From where we started six years ago to where we have come to…they (the kids) have trusted us and we’ve trusted them. The entire community was here tonight to support us. So yes, it means a lot.”