Hershey, Pa., As the sun was beginning to set on Hersheypark stadium during the pregame drills it appeared that the AAAA state championship game between the WPIAL’s North Allegheny Tigers and the District 12 champ LaSalle Explorers was going to be a battle of the Tigers ground and pound attack and the Explorers skill players. The Tigers took home gold on a 21-0 victory over the returning state champs from Philadelphia Catholic League.
Art Walker’s Tigers came into the game at 15-1 and without its star smash mouth RB Alex Papson who is recovering from a broken collarbone. Papson was the perfect complement to North Allegheny’s offensive line, a big, athletic bunch that has worn down defensive lines and plays very hard drive football for four quarters of every game.
Drew Gordon’s Explorers at 14-1 were at full strength after a thrilling 38-35 Eastern Pa win the week before over District 1 power North Penn. LaSalle has played a season of near flawless mistake free football relying on the playmaking of star Villanova bound RB Jamal Abdur-Rahman.
On LaSalle’s first possession the Tigers Kevin Cope recovered a Tim Wade fumble after Wade took a pass from quarterback Matt Magarity out of the backfield on LaSalle’s 40 yard line. North Allegheny went right to work on what have been their bread and butter all season, ground and pound football. They generated a methodical nine play drive with a steady diet of Papson’s understudy, Matt Steinback running primarily off tackle for 36 of their yards on the drive. Quarterback Michael Buchert took it in for a four yard touchdown and a North Allegheny 7-0 lead.
Near the end of the second quarter LaSalle went on an improbable 16 play drive that took up almost eight minutes. Begrudgingly, North Allegheny’s defense was bending but not breaking. Stalled on the Tiger 10 yard line LaSalle lined up to attempt a Ryan Winslow 25 yard field goal attempt. LaSalle was then called for a false start and after a timeout coach Gordon decided to roll the dice and go for the touchdown on the 15 yard line. Magarity’s pass intended for Rahman in the endzone was underthrown and intercepted by Seth Marx.
Still up by only 7-0, the Tigers had the ball at the end of the second quarter and ran one of two successful trick plays that proved the Explorers undoing. With the ball on the LaSalle 27 with under a minute left, Buchert ran a keeper around the right side and lateraled to Steinback who ran behind him going the other direction. The misdirection play caught LaSalle completely off guard and the touchdown run produced a gratifying 14-0 halftime lead.
If the first half trick play hurt LaSalle, the one that Walker called in the third quarter all by sealed LaSalle’s fate. On their second possession after intermission, wide receiver Brendan Coniker took a handoff for a reverse then threw downfield to a wide open Dan Slivka for a 30 yard gain and the ball on the Explorer one. Buchert took it in from there and a 21-0 lead which was the final score.
Trick plays aside; the defense of North Allegheny was the real story. Led by Coniker, Purdue recruit Robert Kugler and Justin Haser, the Tiger defense closed in effectively on every Rahman run limiting the Explorer star to 50 yards on 17 carries.
At game’s end the North Allegheny team huddled around their injured star Papson in a nice tribute to the player who has brought them to this point. In return, Papson can certainly be proud of the way his team played.