The 2019 WPIAL Championships will once again feature a full day of games at Heinz Field, starting at 11am with the 1A Championship. This year four classifications (1A, 3A, 4A, and 6A) will have their title games at Heinz Field. The other two classes play their semifinals on Friday night with their championship games next Saturday at Norwin Stadium.
This year’s championship slate features a number of familiar teams. Three of the title games are conference rematches. Two defending WPIAL Champions made it back to Heinz Field: Pine-Richland in 6A who have won the last two titles and Aliquippa in 3A who are making their 12th straight Championship Game appearance. Thomas Jefferson has reached Heinz Field for the 5th consecutive season and Central Catholic is making their 6th appearance in the last 7 years and Clairton reached Heinz for the 7th time this decade. On the flip side, Belle Vernon’s last appearance in a WPIAL Championship came at Three Rivers Stadium back in 1999. The 3A Championship Game is the first playoff meeting between Aliquippa and Central Valley but the other three title games will break head-to-head playoff ties. This is the fifth playoff meeting for both Pine-Richland and Central Catholic as well as for Clairton and Sto-Rox. Both of those playoff series are tied 2-2. Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon have split their two prior playoff meetings.
All four Championship Games will be broadcast on television on Pittsburgh’s CW and over the airwaves thanks to the TribLive High School Sports Network.
As a reminder, if you’re going to be following along with the WPIAL action on Saturday, keep an eye on the #WPIAL hashtag on Twitter where people post score updates from games. I’ll also be posting score updates and commentary from my Twitter account @thesteelersnat.
Class 6A Championship
1. Central Catholic (10-1) vs 2. Pine-Richland (10-1)
Heinz Field, 8:00pm
How They Got Here
This game matches up two of the top teams statistically in 6A. Pine-Richland leads the classification in scoring (40.7 points per game) but in their first meeting it was Central Catholic’s top-ranked defense (9.2 points against per game) that stole the show. Central dominated Pine-Richland in the trenches and won 29-7 back in Week 5. After a slow start to the season, Central Catholic’s offense has been explosive lately and the Vikings enter the WPIAL final with the third-best unit in 6A (33.6 points per game) while Pine-Richland boasts the second-best defense (10.5 points against per game).
Central Catholic’s WPIAL slate started with a 10-7 victory over Seneca Valley in a defensive struggle. In Week 2 the Vikings were stifling North Allegheny’s offense and held a 10-3 lead before a punt return touchdown in the final minute put North Allegheny back in the game. The Tigers went for two and the win and were successful, dealing Central Catholic their only loss of the season by an 11-10 margin. The Vikings then went on an 8-game run where they won all of their games by at least 14 points. Thanks to Pine-Richland’s Week 9 win over North Allegheny, Central Catholic won the three-way tiebreaker for first place and defeated Mt. Lebanon 31-14 in the semifinals to reach Heinz Field for the sixth time in seven years.
Pine-Richland is the two-time defending WPIAL 6A Champions and looked the part early in the season. They knocked off defending 5A Champions Penn Hills in a Week 0 showdown then rolled through the first four weeks, winning all of their games by at least 28 points. The Rams fell to Central Catholic in Week 5 but bounced back in October to storm past their final four opponents, including a Week 9 victory over rival North Allegheny 42-14 to earn a first round bye. The Rams then repeated the feat and beat their rivals for the second straight game with a 49-14 thrashing in the semifinals to get back to Heinz Field for the third straight season.
This is the fourth playoff meeting between Pine-Richland and Central Catholic in the last six seasons. Since Pine-Richland moved up to AAAA in 2008, this is the fifth time these schools have met in the playoffs. The teams have split the prior four meetings. Central Catholic has a first round victory in 2010 and a semifinal victory in 2016. Pine-Richland defeated Central Catholic in the 2014 and 2017 WPIAL Championship Games.
Central Catholic is making their sixth Championship Game appearance in the last seven years. Before losing to Pine-Richland in the 2017 WPIAL final, Central Catholic had won the two previous titles. The Vikings won the 2015 State Championship and lost in the PIAA final to St. Joe’s Prep in 2016.
Pine-Richland is the two-time defending 6A State Champions and is making their fourth appearance at Heinz Field in the last six seasons. The Rams won the 2014 WPIAL AAAA title over Central Catholic in a game most remembered for their student section bringing a live ram to the tailgate (and it subsequently getting loose on the North Side).
The 2017 and 2018 versions of the Pine-Richland Student Section did not attempt to repeat the feat of bringing livestock to Heinz Field, but on the field there was a similar result as the Rams beat Central Catholic to win the WPIAL title in 2017 then beat Seneca Valley to win the 2018 crown.
Central Catholic has won 6 WPIAL titles in 2003, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015, and 2016. Central also won the PIAA title in 1988, 2004, 2007, and 2015. Interestingly, Central Catholic did not win the WPIAL title in 1988 (they lost the Championship Game to Upper St Clair) but because Upper St Clair School District decided not to compete in the PIAA Championships, Central Catholic took their place and won the title.
Pine-Richland has won four WPIAL titles and is the two-time defending 6A Champ. They won the 2003 WPIAL AAA Championship, the 2014 AAAA Championship, and the 6A Championship in 2017 and 2018. Last year the Rams season ended in the PIAA semifinals. In their three prior WPIAL championship seasons, Pine-Richland reached the State Championship game. They came up just short of winning the title in 2003 and 2014 but won the State Championship in 2017 with a 41-21 victory over St. Joe’s Prep. Additionally, prior to the consolidation of schools, Richland High School won WPIAL titles in 1969 and 1970.
Central Catholic has traditionally been a team built around running the ball and playing defense, and this year’s iteration of the Vikings is no different. Their offense is led by junior RB Eddie Tillman (1546 yards, 22 TDs) who ran for 185 yards and 3 TDs in the first meeting with Pine-Richland. Both Tillman and Antonio Pitts (386 yards, 1 TD) have averaged over 9 yards per carry behind Central Catholic’s dominant offensive line led by Dartmouth-commit Thomas Hartnett. Dontre Jones (298 yards, 5 TDs) and JD Younger (233 yards, 1 TD) have also featured in the rushing attack. The Vikings running game has been so good this season that senior QB Dom Pieto has averaged just 8 passes per game and thrown for 873 yards and 8 TDs. Anderson Cynkar (197 yards, 3 TDs) is the only Vikings player with more than 10 receptions this season. On defense, Central has the best D-line in the WPIAL, led by North Carolina-commit AJ Beatty at defensive end. In the middle, senior A’meer Allen and junior Elliot Donald both have a number of D1 offers. The X-factor for Central may be kicker Johnathan Opalko who has made 7 field goals this year, including a 54-yarder against Hempfield.
Here is a 54 yard field goal from last night. With this kick, I broke the school record for the longest field goal. I now hold the record for the second longest kick in WPIAL history and tied for the 5th longest in PIAA history. https://t.co/ibQU8dGBI8
— Johnathan Opalko (@John_Opalko) September 14, 2019
Pine-Richland’s offense is nearly the polar opposite, relying on 6A’s leading passer Cole Spencer (2490 yards, 29 TDs) to lead the way. Spencer, along with most of Pine-Richland’s receivers, are all juniors who already have WPIAL Championship experience. The Rams receiving corps is led by Eli Jochem (967 yards, 13 TDs), D’avay Johnson (512 yards, 6 TDs), and Luke Miller (314 yards, 6 TDs). All three receivers are over 6-feet tall, which creates matchup issues on the outside. The Rams haven’t run much this season but senior RB Luke Meckler has found ways to contribute with 324 rushing yards, 297 receiving yards, and 13 total TDs. Pine-Richland also has a defensive lineman with D1 talent in junior DE Miguel Jackson who has offers from a number of MAC schools.
Class 4A Championship
1. Thomas Jefferson (12-0) vs 3. Belle Vernon (10-1)
Heinz Field, 5:00pm
How They Got Here
Big Eight Conference rivals Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon dominated 4A this season. They tied for the highest-scoring offense (both at 48.3 points per game) and were the top two defensive squads. Thomas Jefferson had the best defense in the entire WPIAL, allowing just 40 points all season (3.3 points against per game) and pitching 6 shutouts. The only team to score more than once against the Jaguars was 6A Canon-McMillan in Week 0. Belle Vernon’s only loss this season came in Week 2 against Thomas Jefferson where the Jaguars pulled away in the second half to a 34-7 victory. Belle Vernon allowed 11.8 points against per game, with most of the difference coming from their head-to-head meeting and last week’s semifinal against South Fayette.
After allowing just 3 points in the entire month of October (to Central Valley, the top-seeded team in the 3A playoffs), Thomas Jefferson put up 49 points in both the quarterfinals against Montour and the semifinals against Blackhawk. Belle Vernon rolled past New Castle by a 49-6 margin in the quarterfinals to set up a rematch with South Fayette who had knocked them out last year. After a close first half, South Fayette went up 30-21 late in the third quarter. But Belle Vernon struck back to cut the lead to 30-28 then took advantage of some South Fayette mistakes to score two touchdowns in 14 seconds and claim a 41-30 lead. From there, the Leopards defense held on and shut down the WPIAL’s leading passer to secure their first trip to the WPIAL Championship since 1999.
This is just the third playoff meeting between Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon. Belle Vernon beat Thomas Jefferson in the 1996 semifinals and the Jaguars returned the favor over two decades later, beating Belle Vernon in the 2017 semifinals. One of the reasons for limited playoff matchups is that these two have competed in the same conference for the last 12 years. During the last decade, Belle Vernon has actually been the closest team to TJ in conference play, dealing the Jaguars 3 of their 4 conference losses.
This is Thomas Jefferson’s fifth straight appearance at Heinz Field. Aliquippa holds the record at 12 consecutive Championship Game appearances. The next longest streak is held by Thomas Jefferson at 6 straight from 2003-2008. This appearance will tie the five consecutive title games by Clairton (2008-2012) and Central Catholic (2013-2017). Thomas Jefferson also is tied with Aliquippa for the longest active playoff streak at 25 years and has reached at least the semifinals in 21 of the last 22 seasons. The Jaguars won the WPIAL title in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and came up just short last year of being the third team in WPIAL history to win four straight titles.
Belle Vernon has been a consistent playoff contender for the last 25 years. The Leopards have only missed the playoffs three times in that span. However, this is their first appearance in a WPIAL Championship Game since 1999. While Belle Vernon was a consistent participant, they did not stack many wins, losing in the first round in 11 consecutive playoff appearances between 2001 and 2014. Belle Vernon fell in the semifinals to the eventual WPIAL Champion in each of the last two seasons.
Thomas Jefferson won the last WPIAL AAA title in 2015 then won the first two 4A titles in 2016 and 2017 before falling to South Fayette on a goal line interception in the final minute last year. The Jaguars are looking for their 9th title in school history, previously winning Championships in 1980, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008. The Jaguars also have won 3 PIAA titles in 2004, 2007, and 2008.
Belle Vernon has won one prior WPIAL Championship, the AAA title in 1995, beating Franklin Regional 22-6. That year, they lost to Sharon in overtime in the PIAA semifinals. This is the fourth WPIAL Championship Game appearance for Belle Vernon. In addition to their 1995 victory they lost in the AAA final in 1996 to Blackhawk and 1999 to West Allegheny. Rostraver, one of the schools that merged to form Belle Vernon, tied Carmichaels for the 1962 Class A Championship.
Thomas Jefferson is led by a trio of seniors that all rank among the top players at their position in 4A. Shane Stump is a three-year starter at quarterback and has thrown for 2149 yards and 31 TDs this season. Stump has also run for 403 yards and 6 TDs as a complement to fellow senior Dylan Mallozzi (1205 yards, 18 TDs). Both Stump and Mallozzi average about 10 yards per carry behind TJ’s dominant line anchored by Mac Duda and Logan Danielson. On the outside, senior Dan Deabner (834 yards, 19 TDs) is Stump’s primary target. Juniors Ian Hansen (624 yards, 8 TDs) and Preston Zandier (411 yards, 3 TDs) have also contributed to a talented receiving corps that all averages over 20 yards per catch.
Belle Vernon also has a three-year starter at quarterback in Jared Hartman who has thrown for 1745 yards and 29 TDs. Hartman missed the playoffs last year due to a season-ending knee injury but has made the most of his senior season, leading Belle Vernon to Heinz Field. His favorite targets have been Nolan Labuda (586 yards, 12 TDs) and Hunter Ruokonen (366 yards, 9 TDs). The Leopards have a balanced offensive attack with Larry Calloway (1040 yards, 18 TDs) shouldering the load out of the backfield. Belle Vernon also has quality two-way lineman in RMU-commit Hayden Baron and Max Bryer. The biggest difference with this year’s Belle Vernon squad has been sophomore Devin Whitlock who transferred from Monessen. Whitlock has run for 501 yards and added 272 receiving yards and scored 10 TDs. Belle Vernon also has one of the best kickers in the WPIAL in Cam Guess.
Class 3A Championship
1. Central Valley (11-1) vs 2. Aliquippa (11-1)
Heinz Field, 2:00pm
How They Got Here
After falling to Quaker Valley in the 2017 WPIAL final, Aliquippa parted ways with long-time head coach Mike Zmijanac. The Quips hired Central Valley QB coach and Aliquippa alum Mike Warfield who led Aliquippa to the WPIAL and PIAA Championships last season. The only mar on their State Championship season was a Week 9 loss to Central Valley. This season, the teams met again in Week 9 and Central Valley claimed an historic victory. The Warriors became the first team to ever mercy rule Aliquippa on their legendary home field, The Pit, in a 45-6 rout. These are the top two teams in offense and defense in 3A. Central Valley’s top-ranked offense (40.3 points per game) will square off against the Quips top-ranked defense (9.3 points against per game). Aliquippa’s second-ranked offense (39.1 points per game) will have to limit their turnovers against Central Valley’s second-ranked defense (11.3 points against per game).
Central Valley flexed their muscles early in the season with a 17-point win over 4A semifinalist Blackhawk and a 15-point win over Beaver Falls. In a showdown between eventual conference champions, Central Valley dominated North Catholic 35-14. The Warriors only loss of the season came against Thomas Jefferson, the top team in 4A. Central Valley put up 42 points in both rounds of the playoffs, beating Mt. Pleasant 42-6 then getting revenge for last season’s playoff loss by beating Derry 42-7.
Aliquippa got off to a strong start with a Week 0 win in “The Thriller on Miller” showdown with Clairton. The Quips cruised through their first 7 conference games, including a 40-0 victory over rival Beaver Falls. Aliquippa carried a 14-game winning streak into their Week 9 showdown with Central Valley for the Conference Title. Aliquippa committed a number of turnovers which resulted in Central Valley touchdowns and lost to the Warriors for the second straight year. They rebounded to get past Elizabeth Forward 27-7 and South Park 21-7 to reach the WPIAL Championship Game for the 12th straight season.
This is the first playoff meeting between Aliquippa and Central Valley. Central Valley was formed by the merger of Center and Monaca School Districts in 2010 and competed in AAA while Aliquippa played in AA. Central Valley was one of the most successful AAA teams from 2010-2015, winning two WPIAL titles and reaching the Championship Game two other times. When the PIAA realigned to six classifications, Central Valley was slotted in 3A with Aliquippa. The Quips won the first two regular season meetings, but Central Valley has won the last two including their impressive victory in Week 9 this year. Aliquippa never faced Monaca in the playoffs but defeated Center in the AA Quarterfinals in 1992 and 1998.
Aliquippa is playing in their 12th consecutive WPIAL Championship Game. Additionally, this is the third time in the four years of the six-classification era that Aliquippa has faced a conference opponent in the final. In 2016 they lost to Beaver Falls and in 2017 they lost to Quaker Valley. Both of those teams went on to win the 3A State title. Last year, under new head coach (and former Central Valley coach) Mike Warfield, Aliquippa stormed past Derry to win the WPIAL title and went on to capture the PIAA crown. Warfield is 0-2 against his former team, as Central Valley was the only team to beat Aliquippa amid their State Title run last year and dealt the Quips a mercy rule defeat in Week 9 this year.
Central Valley won the WPIAL Championship in their first season after the merger (2010), defeating Montour in the title game. The Warriors would make it back to the title game in 2013, losing to West Allegheny before getting revenge the following year and winning their second WPIAL title. Central Valley lost to Thomas Jefferson in the last AAA Championship Game before the move to six classifications. In 2010, Central Valley’s run ended in the PIAA quarterfinals against Erie Cathedral Prep. In 2014 they reached the PIAA Championship Game where they fell to Archbishop Wood. Of the schools that merged to form Central Valley, Center never won a WPIAL title but Monaca won the WPIAL Class A Championship in 1975, 1982, and 1985.
Aliquippa is in the midst of an historic run, reaching Heinz Field in 12 straight seasons. The Quips have won 6 WPIAL titles during that span, including last year’s Championship over Derry. Aliquippa has the most WPIAL Championships of any school with 17 and have also won three State Championships (1991, 2003, 2018). The Quips won the WPIAL AAA Championship in 1952, 1955, 1964, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1989. After dropping down to AA, Aliquippa won the WPIAL AA Championship in 1991, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2015. The Quips got their first title in the 6-classification era last year in 2018 when they won both the WPIAL and PIAA Championship.
Central Valley has a balanced offensive attack, led by junior QB Ameer Dudley who has thrown for 1647 yards and 20 TDs and run for 420 yards and 9 scores. In the first meeting, Dudley threw for 2 TDs and ran for another in the first meeting between these teams. Both touchdown passes in that game went to senior WR Jawon Hall who has led the team with 578 yards and 11 TDs. The Warriors have a number of other talented receivers in senior Michael Barbuto (294 yards, 3 TDs) and junior Myles Walker (236 yards, 9 TDs). On the ground, senior Jaylen Guy (1049 yards, 11 TDs) has gotten the lions share of carries. Junior WR Stephon Hall has been a touchdown machine, tied for the team lead with 11 TDs, including 3 in last week’s semifinal win over Derry.
Aliquippa, with the exception of their game against Central Valley, has had a dominant rushing attack. The tandem of senior Antonio Quinn (1188 yards, 13 TDs) and junior Vernon Redd (624 yards, 14 TDs) has been nearly unstoppable. Both players average over 7 yards per carry but Central Valley held them both under 65 yards in the first meeting and forced two fumbles. The Quips are also capable of attacking through the air with junior QB Vaughn Morris (1109 yards, 18 TDs). Morris has spread the ball around to the explosive senior Chinua Soloman (476 yards, 10 TDs) along with senior Isaiah Towler (212 yards, 6 TDs) and sophomore Cyair Clark (204 yards, 2 TDs). Aliquippa’s defense is anchored by one of the top linebackers in the state, Penn State-commit Zuriah Fisher who has scored 4 times on defense and 3 times on offense this season.
Class 1A Championship
1. Clairton (10-2) vs 3. Sto-Rox (11-1)
Heinz Field, 11:00am
How They Got Here
As with the finalists in other classifications, Clairton and Sto-Rox both rank among the top offensive and defensive units in 1A. This is the only Championship Game that is not a matchup of conference teams and thus the only one that is not a rematch of a game already played this season. That said, these teams did have six common opponents that could provide some insight into the matchup. Sto-Rox comes in to the Championship Game with the second-best offense (38.5 points per game) and defense (8.6 points per game) in 1A. Clairton is not far behind with the fourth-best offense (36.7 points per game) and third-best defense (11.1 points per game). It is worth noting that Clairton played two games against teams from higher classifications. Against 1A schools their offensive production was 39.9 points per game and their defense allowed just 5.6 points per game.
Clairton’s season got off to an atypical start with the Bears dropping their first two games. However, those losses came against 3A Aliquippa and 2A McGuffey. Clairton got back on track with a 21-14 victory over Greensburg Central Catholic then stepped on the gas pedal over the rest of the season. They cruised through their next 6 games to set up a showdown with Jeannette for the Conference Title in Week 9. Clairton beat Jeannette for the 7th time since 2014 to claim the Conference Title (Jeannette is 65-3 against all other WPIAL teams over that timespan). Clairton pitched shutouts against Big Seven Conference opponents in the first two rounds, beating OLSH 41-0 and Cornell 39-0. Now they get to face the third playoff team from the Big Seven in Sto-Rox.
Coming into the season, Sto-Rox was lauded for their offensive attack after QB Eric Wilson became the first WPIAL player to throw for over 3000 yards in a regular season last year. The Vikings missed the playoffs last year but won their final game and rattled off 8 straight wins to start this season. One of those was a narrow 28-25 victory over Cornell, which wound up being the deciding factor for the Conference Title. In Week 8, Sto-Rox’s passing attack was slowed down by Laurel’s running game with the Spartans beating Sto-Rox for the second straight year. Sto-Rox’s defense carried them through the first two rounds of the playoffs, holding the high-scoring offenses of Jeannette and West Greene in check. The Vikings topped Jeannette 15-6 and West Greene 24-7 after pitching shutouts in 4 of their last 5 regular season outings.
This is the fifth playoff meeting between Clairton and Sto-Rox. Additionally, this is their third meeting in a WPIAL final. Clairton topped Sto-Rox in the 2011 and 2012 WPIAL Championship Games. Sto-Rox has two playoff wins over Clairton, both of them coming in the semifinals (in 2003 and 2013).
Clairton has been one of the most successful WPIAL teams in recent memory. The Bears have won 9 of the last 13 WPIAL Championships. Clairton won three straight WPIAL titles from 2014-2016 but lost in the semifinals each of the last two years. Clairton has not lost a game at Heinz Field since 2004.
Sto-Rox reached three straight WPIAL finals from 2011-2013 but lost all three. Sto-Rox fell on hard times after the 2013 Championship Game loss to North Catholic and did not make the playoffs again until 2016. This year was their third playoff appearance in the last four years and the Vikings earned their first playoff victory since 2013 when they topped Jeannette in the first round.
Clairton has won 13 WPIAL titles, the second-most behind Aliquippa’s 17 titles. Awarded the 1929, 1931, and 1954 WPIAL AAA Championship based on Gardner Points (no Championship Game). Won the WPIAL Class A Championship in 1989, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, and the WPIAL 1A Championship in 2016. Won PIAA Class A Championship in 2009, 2012, 2011, and 2012.
Sto-Rox won the 1987 WPIAL AA Championship, defeating Ellwood City. Stowe beat Ramsay in the 1937 Class A (which became AA) Championship. McKees Rocks was awarded the 1935 and 1936 Class A Championships on Gardner Points.
Clairton has just three seniors on their roster, including dual-threat QB Brendan Parsons who is in his third year as a starter. Parsons has thrown for 1684 yards and 19 TDs and run for 905 yards and 11 TDs. His favorite targets have been electric junior WR Kenlein Ogletree (768 yards, 16 total TDs) who has found the end zone in all three phases this season, and Jonte Sanders (378 yards, 6 TDs). Out of the backfield, Clairton’s top three rushers all average over 8 yards per carry. In addition to Parsons, junior RBs Isaiah Berry (951 yards, 15 TDs) and Dontae Sanders (475 yards, 15 TDs) have been a formidable tandem. Clairton is led in the trenches by two-way lineman Dametrius Weatherspoon. Wayne Wade has been Clairton’s shutdown cornerback but also has a handful of catches on offense (217 yards, 1 TD).
Sto-Rox’s offense is built around their passing attack. Last year as a junior, Eric Wilson became the first player in WPIAL history to throw for 3000 yards in the regular season. This year, Wilson finished 6 yards shy of the regular season passing title but has taken over the top spot during the playoff run. He has now thrown for 3022 yards and 27 TDs. The Vikings have a plethora of talent at WR and Wilson has been able to spread the ball around between seniors Amahd Pack (819 yards, 17 TDs), Jaidon Berry (653 yards, 4 TDs), and Treynell Paxton (579 yards, 6 TDs). Sto-Rox might be the only 1A team with the talent on the outside to match up with Clairton’s secondary. The Vikings are a pass-first team, but their top backs both average 7.5 yards per carry. Sophomore Zay Davis has run for 698 yards and has 338 receiving yards and has scored 13 total TDs. Junior Diontae Givens has run for 436 yards and added 239 yards in the passing game and scored 11 TDs while being the anchor in the middle of the Vikings defense.