What seemed to happen with constant regularity once is now something to be treasured. From 1988 until 1997, it seemed that District 2 was a regular participant in PIAA championship games, making 13 appearances in that span and winning 10 titles.
But suddenly, those District 2 appearances in the PIAA finals dried up and practically vanished. Berwick’s regular PIAA AAA title game appearances were replaced by teams from Districts 1, 3, and 11. AA gave way to Districts 4 and 11. Class A became the “Southern Columbia Invitiational” (sounds almost like a catchy name for a golf tournament).
Now, for just the second time since 1997, and first time since 2007, a District 2 school has the chance to bring a long-awaited golden football back to northeastern Pennsylvania.
The order for the Vikings, though, is tall. Riverside will be opposed by Clairton (15-0) in the PIAA A state final at HersheyPark Stadium, with kickoff slated for 2 p.m. The Vikings must try to dent a Clairton defense that has pitched 10 shutouts and allowed only 36 points all season.
The order was tall for the last District 2 team to reach the PIAA finals – Dunmore – in 2007. The Bucks were charged with containing Pennsylvania’s most proficient scoring team ever, the Jeannette Jayhawks, who were keyed by Terrelle Pryor and Jordan Hall, both of whom had scored more than 30 touchdowns and both of whom are currently playing football at Ohio State. Dunmore couldn’t slow Jeannette, and lost via the mercy rule, 49-21.
Riverside is making its first PIAA finals appearance since 1997, when the Vikings reached the Class A title game against Sharpsville in a game played at Altoona’s Mansion Park Stadium. The Vikings’ current head coach, Harry Armstrong, was the quarterback of that Riverside team that fell to the Blue Devils, 10-7, and gave Mercer County its third consecutive PIAA championship victory in the state’s smallest classification. Back in the day, Armstrong was a career 4,200-yard passer and tailback Jeremy Ransom wound up finishing his career as a 4,000-yard rusher.
This latest edition of the Riverside Vikings doesn’t boast a career 4,000-yard rusher or passer. But it does boast a pair of 1,000 yard rushers in seniors Corey Talerico (1,068 yards) and Akron commit Nick Rossi (1,139 yards).
Teams with a duo of 1,000-yard rushers are not all that uncommon in the PIAA finals. From PIAA finalists from 2001 to 2009, there were 15 known teams with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. Eight of those 15 teams won PIAA titles, and, impressively, from 2003 to 2008, at least one of the four PIAA champions from that given time frame had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. The streak snapped last year when Manheim Central lost to Selinsgrove, 10-7.
This edition of the Riverside Vikings also boasts a pretty proficient quarterback. Talerico was already mentioned for his threat as a runner and his four-figure total of rushing yardage along with 16 touchdowns. Through the air, Talerico has posted an impressive 1,929 yards and 27 touchdowns against nine interceptions, completing 124-of-199 passes.
Talerico is, believe it or not, the 11th 1,000/1,000 quarterback to play in a PIAA championship game since 1996. Later Friday, Allentown Central Catholic QB Brendan Nosovitch will be the 12th. But for such quarterbacks, results don’t tilt one way or the other. They are split down the middle. In those 10 instances, 1,000/1,000 QBs that reach the PIAA finals are just 5-5 overall, with just two wins since 2006.
Beyond the duo of Rossi and Talerico, who have 38 rushing touchdowns between them, Paul Lassiter (92 rush, 601 yards, 6 TD) and Hakeem Lincoln (42, 362, 4) also get the job done on the ground. The aerial assault features a trio of primary targets – Skylar Lavage (51 rec., 881 yards, 12 TD), Tommy Armillay (31 rec., 499 yards, 8 TD) and Rossi (22 rec., 325 yards, 4 TD).
Riverside’s scored a total of 551 points (86th in state history) – an average of 36.7 points per game – which ranks third in school history. The ’97 team amassed 555 points (80th in the state) and the 2008 team scored a school-record 613 points (29th in the state). Coach Armstrong has a connection with all three 500-point scoring Riverside teams – coaching two and playing on one.
Riverside gained a lot of attention and notoriety in its first two PIAA playoff games, against Southern Columbia and Schuylkill Haven. The Vikings outscored both the Tigers and Hurricanes by a combined score of 77-0 and severly limited the primary weapon of choice for both teams – the ground game. Then, along came District 6 champion Bishop Carroll, who rang up over 200 rushing yards between feature back Ryan Woo and quarterback Josh Barzdo. Riverside’s defense (including first string and reserves) has posted four shutouts this season and limited seven opponents to seven points or less. In five playoff games, the Viking defense has allowed a grand total of 34 points.
Can Riverside overcome the great odds stacked against it and score District 2′s first PIAA championship since Berwick won in 1997? Find out Friday afternoon.