Harrisburg has waited for this moment for quite some time. The city watched as the Steelton-Highspire football community celebrated consecutive PIAA championships in 2007 and 2008. It watched as Lancaster-Lebanon League representatives Manheim Central and Lancaster Catholic reached the state finals last year, finishing 1-1. It came oh so very close to celebration and revelry in 2007 when the Harrisburg Cougars gave it their all in the Western Finals against eventual champion Pittsburgh Central Catholic, 14-6.
But now, for the first time since 1995, Harrisburg has one of its teams playing for a PIAA championship.
The Bishop McDevitt Crusaders will line up opposite against District 11 and Lehigh Valley Conference champion Allentown Central Catholic (15-0) Friday night in the PIAA AAA state championship game from HersheyPark Stadium, with kickoff slated for 7 p.m. McDevitt has won 11 consecutive games and will be tasked with corralling an ACC spread offense that has dropped a whopping 158 points on Abington Heights, Clearfield Area and Archbishop Wood – teams with a combined 2010 record of 38-3.
Bishop McDevitt’s only foray into the PIAA championship stage proved a successful one – the Crusaders blanked WPIAL champion Burrell 29-0 in the 1995 AA state final, played at Altoona’s Mansion Park Stadium. That edition of the Crusaders finished a perfect 15-0 and scored 472 points.
The ’95 edition of the Crusaders began a three-year run of consecutive District 3 AA championships, but forays into the playoffs from 1996-2005 always ended in disappointment. In 1996, it was Mount Carmel Area who eliminated McDevitt in the Eastern Final. In 1997, it was a stunning loss to District 11 champion Northwestern Lehigh. In 2004, Pittsburgh Central Catholic’s machine of a football team mowed down the Crusaders in the AAAA Western Final. A year later at the same juncture, McDevitt fell to McKeesport, 14-13. So no wonder head coach Jeff Weachter (career 112-41 record) and athletic director Tommy Mealy were talking about the proverbial monkey being removed from McDevitt’s back following a come-from-behind 24-21 victory over Erie Cathedral Prep last Friday night at DuBois’ E.J. Mansell Stadium.
The appearance in the AAA state final makes McDevitt just the sixth PIAA affiliate to play a state championship game in two different classfications, joining Dunmore (1989 – A; 2007 – AA); Seton-LaSalle (1990 – AAA; 2002 – AA); Bethlehem Catholic (1988 – AA; 1990 – AAA); Aliquippa (1988 – AAA; 1991, 2000, 2003 – AA); and South Williamsport (1993 – A; 1997 – AA). McDevitt joins Bethlehem Catholic as the only other PIAA affiliate to play a PIAA semifinal game in three different classifications. Both schools played in AA, AAA, and AAAA state semis.
Bishop McDevitt is looking to bring home District 3′s second PIAA AAA crown, but D3 schools are just 1-3 all-time in AAA state title games. No Mid Penn AAA school has ever played in a AAA state final – the four games have come courtesy of Lancaster-Lebanon League reps Conestoga Valley and Manheim Central.
These Crusaders, owners of an 85-17 record (.833) since the start of the 2004 season, certainly have some offensive fire power. Senior quarterback Matt Johnson, who committed to Bowling Green prior to the start of the season, has posted yet another outstanding season. Johnson has completed 183-of-279 passes for 2,742 yards with 25 touchdowns against only four interceptions. It’s Johnson’s third straight 2,000-yard, 20-TD passing season, which is nothing to sneeze at. #11 has thrown for 7,726 career yards (including a 214-yard effort against Erie Cathedral Prep) and 84 touchdowns. Johnson ranks 6th in the state in career passing yards and 9th in touchdown passes.
Johnson’s backfield mate, senior running back Jameel Poteat, is also putting together a solid season. Poteat, a Pitt commit, has run for 1,653 yards and 29 touchdowns on 292 carries, including a 29-carry, 110-yard effort against Erie Cathedral Prep. It’s Poteat’s second consecutive season with more than 1,650 rush yards and 25+ rushing touchdowns and third 1,000-yard rushing season in a row. For his career, Poteat has run for 4,761 yards and scored 74 rushing touchdowns.
But offensively, McDevitt is more than just Johnson and Poteat, though they certainly generate lots of headlines and publicity. Bishop McDevitt’s offensive line is every bit of the word huge, averaging an impressive 280.4 pounds per man. Seniors Justin Garlic (6’5, 295) and Tony Harris (6’3, 330) and juniors Kyree Ross (6’0, 253), DeAndre Lawson (6’0, 244) and Pat Narus (6’5, 280) have helped pave the way for the Crusaders to average 349.4 yards of offense and 35.4 points per game. But make note: Ross was injured during the second half of the Cathedral Prep game and did not return, which shifted Lawson to center and brought in Tom Scully (6’2, 212) to fill Lawson’s spot. If Ross cannot go Friday night, McDevitt’s OL average per man drops to 272.2.
Wide receivers Brian Lemelle (66 rec., 1,140 yds., 10 TD) and Shaun Seif (44, 639, 6) are the primary targets, but are by no means the only threats to catch passes. Seniors Poteat, Sean Barowski and Matt Boland have combined for 46 receptions, 527 yards and five additional touchdowns.
Defensively, McDevitt is paced by junior blue-chipper Noah Spence (team-leading 21 sacks). Spence not only has an impressive sack total, but he also leads the team in tackles, and is being courted by many major Division-1 football programs. To date, Spence has received verbal offers from more than one dozen programs, including Illinois, North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pitt, Tennessee and Southern Cal. Barowski, Brock Dean, Darnell Holland and Allen Hollman have all made significant contributions on the defensive side of the ball for McDevitt.
On special teams, sophomore Connor Maloney has converted 63 PATs and nine field goals, accounting for 90 of the Crusaders’ points scored this season.
McDevitt’s season scoring output of 534 points ranks in a tie for 111th in the state (with the 1996 Mount Carmel Area Red Tornadoes; 2004 Manheim Central Barons; and 2009 Farrell Steelers). That mark trails the school record of 563 points, established just last season. Impressive season scoring totals are par for the course with the Crusaders, who have topped the 450-point plateau in 2008 (490), 1996 (486), 1985 (478), 2007 (474) and the aforementioned 1995 team.
Does Bishop McDevitt have what it takes to slow down Allentown Central Catholic and bring District 3 its eighth PIAA title? Find out Friday night.
Rob Pugliese, Bishop McDevitt football insider & color commentator for PASportsRadio.com, helped contribute information appearing in this preview.