Home Steelers 2022 Season 2022 WPIAL 6A & 5A Championships Preview

2022 WPIAL 6A & 5A Championships Preview

Previews of North Allegheny vs Central Catholic and Pine-Richland vs Upper St Clair

by Ian

The first WPIAL Champions will be crowned this weekend. Since the 6A and 5A WPIAL Champions enter the state bracket in the quarterfinals, while the other four enter in the semifinals, the two largest classifications have to play their Championships a weekend early. The two title games this Saturday will take place at Norwin between four legendary programs. The four teams have combined for 26 WPIAL Championships In addition to the WPIAL action this weekend, City League Champions Westinghouse will be playing their PIAA playoff game against Central Clarion (which is a co-op team formed by the union of Clarion, Clarion-Limestone, and Northern Clarion). The Westinghouse-Central Clarion game will be on Friday at 7pm at Cupples Stadium with the winner taking on the winner of the 2A District 10 Championship between former WPIAL member Farrell and Sharpsville.

Check out this week’s edition of the WPIAL Blitz Show for a breakdown of all the results from last week as well as a preview of this week’s games. Also, be sure to follow our WPIAL Twitter account @WPIAL_Blitz and check out our WPIAL Blitz Facebook Page.

This year, our WPIAL coverage is proudly presented by Sports Solutions Marketing. The Sports Solutions network provides pay per view hosting and broadcasting for high school sporting events. More information is available via EasternPAFootball.com.

6A Championship Game

1. North Allegheny (10-1) vs 3. Central Catholic (7-4)
Saturday, November 19, 6:00pm
WPIAL Blitz Show 6A Breakdown

How They Got Here

With only 5 teams in 6A this season, the playoff race was tight all season and went down to the wire. North Allegheny secured the top seed as the only unbeaten team in conference play, but it didn’t come easy. The Tigers started the year by topping Canon-McMillan in a 35-21 shootout in Week 1. After non-conference wins over Erie McDowell and Baldwin, they defeated Central Catholic 7-3 in a defensive struggle. Their only loss of the season came against 5A Pine-Richland but North Allegheny bounced back quickly with dominant defensive performances in wins over Mt. Lebanon, Norwin, and Penn-Trafford. In the regular season finale, North Allegheny stormed back from a 12-point fourth quarter deficit to defeat Seneca Valley and knock the Raiders out of the playoffs, setting up a rematch with Canon-McMillan in the semifinals. In a rain-hindered slugfest, North Allegheny scored a fourth quarter touchdown to win 7-0 and advance to the Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.

Central Catholic is appearing in their fourth straight WPIAL Championship Game. This season got off to a bit of a rocky start. Central dropped their season-opener against St Edwards, one of the top teams in Ohio. They bounced back with wins over Abraham Lincoln from Philadelphia and needed a 4th quarter comeback to defeat Bethel Park. Conference play started with consecutive close losses to North Allegheny (7-3) and Mt. Lebanon (17-16). Those put the Vikings behind the 8 ball and potentially in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2001. But Central rebounded in a big way with another clutch 4th quarter comeback victory over Canon-McMillan to keep their playoff hopes alive. After losing to Pine-Richland, they defeated Seneca Valley in Week 8 to secure a playoff spot. The Vikings enter the playoffs on a bit of a hot streak, winners of their final three games. That streak carried through to the semifinals where they avenged the earlier loss to Mt. Lebanon with a 28-7 victory.

Recent History

This is the seventh playoff meeting between North Allegheny and Central Catholic. The Vikings hold the advantage with a 4-2 postseason record against the Tigers. Central won the most recent playoff meeting, in the 2020 Championship Game. Interestingly that was the first time these two schools met with a WPIAL title on the line. That said, North Allegheny and Central Catholic are very familiar with each other and have been conference opponents for the last decade in both AAAA and 6A. In the last 11 years, North Allegheny is 6-5 against Central Catholic in the regular season but 0-2 against the Vikings in the playoffs. North Allegheny has won 4 of the last 5 regular season meetings. All-time, including both regular season and postseason games, the teams are very evenly matched with North Allegheny holding a slight edge with a 13-12-1 record against Central Catholic.

North Allegheny is appearing in their second Championship Game in three years. In 2020 they fell to Central Catholic 38-24. That 2020 title game was North Allegheny’s first trip to the WPIAL finals since winning three straight from 2010-2012. Over the last decade, the Tigers have been a successful regular season team and been the top seed in the playoffs on numerous occasions but suffered upsets in 2016 and 2018 to Seneca Valley.

Central Catholic is appearing in their 4th straight WPIAL Championship Game and 9th in the last 10 years. The Vikings have been the model of consistency and success in 6A. Central won back-to-back titles in 2019 and 2020 before falling to eventual State Champions Mt. Lebanon in the title game last year.

Championship Pedigree

With only five teams in 6A this cycle, the heavy-hitters were once again strong. Two of the current 6A teams (Seneca Valley and Canon-McMillan) have never won WPIAL titles. Central Catholic and Mt. Lebanon have both won eight titles and North Allegheny has won four. SInce the move to six classifications, Central Catholic leads the way with three 6A Championships to Mt. Lebanon’s one. The other two 6A titles were won by Pine-Richland who moved down to 5A in 2020.

North Allegheny’s first WPIAL title came in 1990 when they defeated Butler 9-0 to win the AAAA title. They would go on to win the State Championship, defeating Ridley 21-14. The Tigers would fall in WPIAL Championship Games in 1992, 1996, and 1998. The 2000s saw a number of playoff appearances but NA would not return to the title game until 2010. This kicked off a three-year run of dominance that saw North Allegheny win three consecutive WPIAL titles (defeating Woodland Hills twice and Upper St Clair once) and two State Titles. North Allegheny defeated La Salle College 21-10 to win the 2010 State title, lost to Central Dauphin 23-20 in the 2011 state semis, then came back to crush Coatesville 63-28 in the 2012 State Championship. This is just their second trip to the WPIAL Championship since the Ross Morgan Rager.

Central Catholic has been the most consistently dominant team in the WPIAL’s top classification this century. From 2001-2015 the Vikings appeared in 11 semifinals, 7 championship games, and won 5 WPIAL titles. They also claimed three State titles during that time, in 2004, 2007, and 2015. When the PIAA moved to six classifications, Central’s run of playoff success was even more pronounced. This will be their 6th Championship Game appearance in 7 years and they have won 3 titles since 2016, including back-to-back Championships in 2019 and 2020. The Vikings also won the first ever State Championship back in 1988, with a small caveat that you can read more about in the Upper St Clair section below. Central has not won a state title since that 2015 title, losing to St Joe’s Prep in the 2016 and 2019 State Championship Games.

Dramatis Personae

Both teams have been led by quality quarterbacks and solid running games. North Allegheny also has a dynamic passing attack led by QB Logan Kushner (1263 yards, 13 TDs). Kushner has also been a factor in short-yardage on the ground with 6 TDs this season, including the only score in the semifinals against Canon-McMillan last week. Khiryn Boyd has been an all-around threat with 581 receiving yards, 270 rushing yards, and 10 total TDs. When not targeting Boyd, Kushner’s favorite receivers ahve been Antony Varlotta (272 yards, 3 TDs) and Rourke Kennedy (165 yards, 1 TD). The Tigers ground game is led by the tandem of Andrew Gavlik (806 yards, 4 TDs) and Tyree Alualu (264 yards, 4 TDs). Alualu is the son of Steelers defensive tackle Tyson Alualu and is also a standout linebacker on the defensive side of the ball. In the trenches, tackle Abdallah Daud has a few D1 offers.

Central Catholic is a traditionally run-heavy team but opened up their passing game this year with Payton Wehner, who led 6A with 2247 yards and 16 TDs. Last week he connected for 2 TDs with Peter Gonzalez (630 yards, 6 TDs). Gonzalez is the son of former Pitt and Steelers QB Pete Gonzalez and missed the beginning of the year with an injury but is back in full form with a number of D1 offers from MAC and ACC schools. Other receivers that have been factors in the passing game include Vernon Settles (603 yards, 2 TDs), Bradley Gompers (283 yards, 1 TD), and TE Cole Sullivan (222 yards, 1 TD). Sullivan has an offer from Boston College and Settles has an Akron offer. On the ground, Amari Shields (491 yards, 2 TDs) and Elijah Faulkner (489 yards, 5 TDs) have shared the workload almost evenly. Wehner has also contributed to the Vikings rushing attack with 300 yards and 3 TDs. Junior linebacker Anthony Speca is one of the best in the WPIAL and has offers from numerous high-major colleges. Keep an eye out for dynamic CB/KR Xxavier Thomas who has found the end zone four times this season.

5A Championship Game

2. Pine-Richland (9-3) vs 5. Upper St Clair (10-2)
Saturday, November 19, noon
WPIAL Blitz Show 5A Breakdown

How They Got Here

Pine-Richland hired Jon LeDonne from Penn Hills this offseason to take the helm of the Rams program. The Rams struggled a bit out of the gate, getting blown out by a team from Ohio and losing their conference opener to Penn Hills. After a non-conference loss to Seneca Valley dropped Pine-Richland to 1-3, the Rams made a change at quarterback. From there, the offense took off and put up 35+ points in 5 of their next 6 games. Pine-Richland closed the season on a 6-game winning streak that included wins over both 6A finalists – North Allegheny and Central Catholic. In the playoffs they defeated Penn-Trafford in the first round (interestingly, the third straight year those teams had met in the postseason). Last week the running game proved strong again in the pouring rain and the Rams topped Woodland Hills 23-12 to get back to the Championship Game for the 5th time in 6 years.

Upper St Clair jumped out of the gates with dominant wins in their first four games. The Panthers offense was clicking to the tune of 45 points per game early in the year. The middle of their schedule saw USC face off against a number of South Hills rivals. They topped conference foe Peters Twp and neighboring rival Mt. Lebanon by identical 17-10 scores in consecutive weeks to set up a showdown with Bethel Park with the top spot in the conference on the line. Bethel’s ground game controlled the clock in the second half and pulled out a 27-14 victory over USC. The Panthers would fall again the next week against 6A Canon-McMillan, the first time they had lost to the Big Macs in nearly two decades. Upper St Clair was able to bounce back in the final two weeks, beating both Moon and South Fayette by 35+ points to secure their playoff spot. In the opening round, Aidan Besselman reeled in a 25-yard pass on 4th and 11 for the go-ahead touchdown to top Gateway. Last week, the Panthers got revenge on Bethel Park and earned their first trip to the WPIAL title game in a decade.

Recent History

Pine-Richland has been one of the most successful WPIAL programs over the last decade. The Rams have won four WPIAL titles and two State titles in that span. This will be their sixth Championship Game since 2014 when the student section brought a live ram to Heinz Field (and it got loose on the North Side). Pine-Richland defeated Central Catholic to win the 2014 AAAA Championship and topped the Vikings again in 2017 to win the 6A title. The 2017 team would go on to defeat the New York-New Jersey-Maryland All-Star Team of St. Joe’s Prep in the state Championship game. The Rams won the WPIAL again in 2018, defeating Seneca Valley. In 2020 Pine-Richland moved down to 5A and had a dominant run to the WPIAL title (defeating Peters Twp) and State Championship (defeating Cathedral Prep).

While Pine-Richland has dominated the recent decade, Upper St Clair can claim the historic dominance of the late 80s and 90s. Legendary coach Jim Render retired after the 2018 season with more than 400 career victories, the most in WPIAL history. Upper St Clair has been a consistent playoff contender this century, making 23 consecutive playoff appearances. However, this is just their fourth Championship Game in that timespan and their first since 2011. This will also be their first trip to a WPIAL final under head coach Mike Junko who replaced Coach Render in 2019.

Championship Pedigree

From a historical standpoint, these teams have a very similar pedigree. Both can lay claim to 7 WPIAL titles and 2 State titles. Both teams first claims titles back in the three-classification era prior to 1980. Richland High School, which was renamed as Pine-Richland in 1982 to reflect the merger of districts which actually occurred in 1958, won WPIAL titles in 1969 and 1970. Richland won the Class A (later renamed AA) Championship, defeating New Brighton 30-0 in 1969 and Beaver 8-7 in 1970.  Upper St Clair’s first WPIAL Championships were both shared. The Panthers tied Gateway 6-6 in 1974 and tied New Castle 0-0 in 1975. Interestingly in both 1974 and 1975 Upper St Clair and their WPIAL co-champions are remembered as “mythical state champions” as they had the highest statewide scores in the Saylor Rating System.

Richland (and later Pine-Richland) would endure decades of struggle and would not make the playoffs between the 1970 title and 1999. The Rams would find success in the early 2000s, losing the 2002 AAA WPIAL Championship Game to Hopewell then coming back and beating Thomas Jefferson to win the crown in 2003. Pine-Richland would go another decade before making the Championship Game, but their 2014 AAAA title (the live Ram game) would spur a decade of success. In addition to the 2014 AAAA title, Pine-Richland has won the 2017 and 2018  6A Championships and 2020 5A Championship. They are one of two teams statewide (Aliquippa is the other) to win State titles in multiple classifications (6A and 5A for the Rams) since 2016.

While Pine-Richland endured a 29-year playoff drought after their 1970 title, Upper St Clair’s consistent success continued. From 1988-1997 the Panthers were the dominant team in the WPIAL, winning four Championships and reaching seven title games. It was the Panthers who won the WPIAL title in 1988, the first year of the State playoffs. However, due to a decision by the school board to not participate in the state playoffs, their place was taken by Central Catholic (who had lost to USC in the WPIAL Championship Game). Central went on to win the 1988 State title. Upper St Clair would follow up the next season, winning the 1989 WPIAL and PIAA Championships. During their decade of success, the Panthers added WPIAL titles in 1992 and 1997 but fell in the State title game in both of those seasons. Upper St Clair missed the playoffs in 1999 (their only year since 1985 they have not played postseason football!) but would make it back to the title game in 2003, losing to Central Catholic. The Panthers won the 2006 AAAA Championship, defeating Penn Hills 18-12 then going on to blow out Liberty 47-13 in the PIAA Championship game to claim their second (official) State title. Since that 2006 State title, the Panthers have been back to the WPIAL finals only once, in 2011.

Dramatis Personae

Upper St Clair has used two young quarterbacks this year. Julian Dahlem (980 passing yards, 16 TDs, 342 rushing yards, 3 TDs) started the season but was benched in favor of freshman Ethan Hellman (775 yards, 9 TDs) in Week 7. However, in the opening round win over Gateway, Dahlem returned to the lineup and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to star receiver Aidan Besselman (743 yards, 10 TDs). Hellman started the semifinal against Bethel Park, and threw for over 100 yards and a TD. While Besselman is the primary target in the passing game, Cody Mann (306 yards, 5 TDs) has made some big plays as well. The Panthers have an explosive running back in Jamaal Brown (1468 yards, 14 TDs) who averages 8 yards per carry. Last week Brown put up 130 yards in USC’s win over Bethel Park. The X-factor for USC is on special teams where they have one of the best kickers in the WPIAL in Bennett Henderson who has booted 9 field goals this season.

Pine-Richland made a mid-season quarterback change, moving Ryan Palmieri from running back to quarterback and it paid huge dividends. Palmieri had stepped in at QB last year when starter Cole Boyd went down with an injury. On the season, Palmieri has thrown for 551 yards and 3 TDs and leads the team with 1343 rushing yards and 19 TDs. Last week against Woodland Hills he put up over 300 yards and 2 TDs. With Palmieri moved to quarterback, that opened room for Ethan Pillar at running back, who has run for 912 yards and 11 TDs. Luke Rudolph (327 yards, 5 TDs) has been a home run-hitting back, averaging over 13 yards per carry in just 24 touches. The Rams have been so strong on the ground with the duo of Palmieri and Pillar that they haven’t had to throw much, but when they do Andrew Mellis (251 yards, 1 TD) and Bradford Gelly (210 yards, 2 TDs) have been the top targets.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.