It only took six years, but North Allegheny head coach Art Walker is back on the PIAA’s biggest stage – the AAAA state championship game. Take a jog down memory lane, if you will, to the 2003 and 2004 PIAA finals when Walker guided Pittsburgh Central Catholic to Chocolatetown. His 2004 Central Catholic team claimed the state championship with a crushing victory over Neshaminy and became the first PIAA affiliate school to win 16 games in a season. After that ’04 season, Walker moved on to North Allegheny.
The only change in Walker’s move was trading the Viking horn helmet logo for a gold Tiger paw. Success soon followed, in the form of consecutive berths in the WPIAL AAAA semifinals in 2006 and 2007 – the latter team went 11-0 before falling to Gateway in a game played at Woodland Hills’ Wolvarena. After last weekend’s victory over Cumberland Valley, Walker’s career won-loss record now stands at 115-31.
Now, North Allegheny is playing for its first PIAA championship since 1990. The Tigers will tussle with Philadelphia Catholic League champion LaSalle College High School (13-1) Saturday evening at HersheyPark Stadium for all the marbles in the state’s largest classification. Kickoff is slated for 5 p.m. NA is facing an opponent in LaSalle that outscored its opposition 385-75 during an 11-week stretch of the 2010 season.
When North Allegheny last played for a PIAA championship, the PIAA finals were in their third year of existence. Only state semifinal and state title games were played at that time. And a gallon of gas in 1990, was, well, affordable. The Tigers wound up defeating District 1 representative and traditional Delaware County powerhouse Ridley, 21-14, in Hershey after sending District 10 rep. Erie Cathedral Prep home the week prior, 35-17.
35-17. Doesn’t that score sound familiar? It’s the same exact score posted in the Tigers’ victory over Cumberland Valley in the Western Finals last weekend.
And of the bulk of the WPIAL’s state title game representatives have come from geographic areas other than the northern suburbs (or points further north) than central, southern or eastern Allegheny County. The only “northern” AAAA representatives from the WPIAL to reach the PIAA finals are the 1990 NA Tigers, the 1993 North Hills Indians and the 1998 New Castle Red Hurricane.
There’s also another figure to keep in mind…WPIAL AAAA representatives in the PIAA finals have won four of the last five title games in which they’ve played. The lone exception was 2008, when Bethel Park fell to Bethlehem Liberty, 28-21, in overtime.
From a history standpoint, however, North Allegheny has a couple of factors working against it. This is the first time the WPIAL has faced the Philadelphia Catholic League in a AAAA playoff game. And, in PIAA AAAA title games in which the WPIAL is NOT the defending champion (excluding the inaugural 1988 title games), WPIAL schools are just 2-5 overall, with the two wins coming in 1993 and 2004.
A couple of weeks ago, NA sustained what appeared on the surface to be a major blow when its featured tailback Alex Papson was lost for the remainder of the season with a dislocated collarbone. Papson ran for more than 1,000 yards in his sophomore and junior seasons and had 2,482 yards and 32 touchdowns up until his season-ending injury. Papson finished his NA career with 4,831 rushing yards and 61 touchdowns. Suddenly, without #42, NA’s offense had ground to a halt against Woodland Hills, managing just 39 rushing yards and one first down for the remainder of the game. But since that night on the sandy turf of Heinz, some key reserves have stepped up to help spark the Tigers’ ground attack which averages more than 274 yards per game.
Vinnie Congedo, Alex DiCiantis (pronounced Dee-shaun-tis) and Matt Steinbeck have filled the void left by Papson. Congedo has run for 178 yards and two touchdowns the last two weeks, including a season-best 142 yards against State College Area in the PIAA quarterfinals. DiCiantis has scored four rushing touchdowns the last two weeks and has 32 carries for 169 yards in that same span. And Steinbeck, NA’s #2 back behind Papson all season, returned from an ankle injury to run for 161 yards against Cumberland Valley. Congedo, DiCiantis and Steinebeck have combined for 147 rushes for 964 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Quarterback Mike Buchert adds 310 rushing yards and four scores on the ground on 99 carries, including 50 yards against CV last week.
North Allegheny’s rushing offense has, the last two weeks, run for 627 yards (280 yards vs. State College; 347 yards vs. Cumberland Valley). The Tigers’ offensive line, anchored by Justin Haser (6’5, 245), Zach Harvey (6’2, 220), Pete Thistle (6’1, 220), Vince Czerniewski (6’1, 280), Pat Kugler (6’4, 270) and senior tight end Rob Kugler (6’4, 245) have bullied and battered the opposition. The Tigers’ OL has also provided pass protection for Buchert when he does throw, accounting for 1,008 yards and 11 TD on the year. Senior WR Dan Slivka (31 rec., 722 yards, 7 TD) is the featured passing target.
Defensively speaking, North Allegheny has really proven stout the last few weeks, and really, all season long. In terms of rushing defense, the Tigers have held their last three opponents (Woodland Hills, State College, Cumberland Valley) to a grand total of 121 rushing yards and just two rushing touchdowns. WH finished with 94 yards on the ground on 32 carries – led mostly by its Pitt-bound senior back Lafayette Pitts, who only ran for 49 yards on 18 totes in the WPIAL title game. State High only mustered 23 rushing yards and Cumberland Valley was held to four yards rushing on 17 team carries. Only six of North Allegheny’s 15 opponents have scored in double-digits against either the first-string defense or reserves. North Allegheny has allowed an average of 8.4 points per game and posted three shutouts.
The NA defense is paced by LBs Kevin Cope (149 tackles – 97 solo – 6.5 sacks), Seth Marx (87 tackles – 56 solo – 2 sacks) and Lucas Hook (73 tackles – 53 solo – 2 sacks); DLs Rob Kugler (59 tackles, 6 sacks), Haser (56 tackles, 8.5 sacks), Czerniewski (53 tackles, 8 sacks) and Nate Nachazel (34 tackles, team-best 9 sacks); and DBs Brandon Coniker (37 tackles, 4 INT) and Steinbeck (37 tackles, 3 INT).
North Allegheny’s kicker, senior Alex Greenblatt, has successfully converted 55 PATs and 10 field goals. He’s scored 85 total points. As a team as a whole, North Allegheny has scored 485 points (32.3 points per game), which is unofficially the 45th-best season scoring output in WPIAL history.
Will North Allegheny bring a PIAA championship back to Wexford? Find out Saturday evening.