Bob Palko has chance for history ...... about Ray Zellars and other football notes

Written by Mike White on .

Notes, anecdotes and thoughts on the WPIAL championships and semifinals this weekend.

West Allegheny coach Bob Palko has a chance for history. Just call it a game of "eight ball."

West Allegheny plays McKeesport in the WPIAL Class 5A championship Friday, 2 p.m. at Heinz Field. A victory would put Palko on top of the list for most WPIAL titles. Palko is trying for his eighth championship.

Palko is tied with New Castle's Phil Bridenbaugh with seven titles. Bridenbaugh was a legend, winning titles from the 1920s through the 1940s. Included among his seven is one co-championship. (In the picture, Palko, on left, talks with defensive coordinator Bryan Cornell).

No matter what happens Friday, Palko has had an amazing run. The guy belongs on a pedestal of best coaches in WPIAL history - in any sport. Many wondered how West Allegheny would fare this season, playing in Class 5A against many new opponents. And the Indians were far from overwhelming early in the season.

But they have been dominant the last half of the season. What's interesting about this team is it doesn't have a big star with huge statistics, although quarterback Nick Ross has thrown for 1,870 yards and completed 65 percent of his passes. Now, don't kid yourself. There are some talented players on this squad. But these Indians are a "team" in every sense of that word. Then again, that's how a number of Palko's squads have shaped up lately. 

In Palko's early years, he had some stars,, like his son, Tyler, and Dorin Dickerson. Mike Caputo was a standout not all that long ago. But lately, West Allegheny has been all about team and balance.

But back to championship coaches. Here are the ones with the most titles in WPIAL history:

7 – Phil Bridenbaugh, New Castle (includes one co-championship)

7 – Bob Palko, West Allegheny

6 – Chuck Klausing, Braddock

6 – George Novak, five at Woodland Hills and one at Steel Valley

6 – Art Walker, five at Mt. Lebanon and one at Shady Side Academy

6 – Tom Nola, Clairton

6 – Mike Zmijanac, Aliquippa

More on the coaches

Among coaches, there are some familiar faces and some new faces in the four title games. Thomas Jefferson's Bill Cherpak will try to join the seven others who have won six or more championships. Cherpak has five. His Jaguars meet New Castle in the 4A final.

This is New Castle coach Joe Cowart's first title game, but he does have championship experience. He was the quarterback of the 1998 New Castle team that won the WPIAL 4A title at Three Rivers Stadium.

In 6A, Central Catholic plays Seneca Valley. Central Catholic's Terry Totten is going for his fourth title. At Seneca Valley, Dave Vestal has the Raiders in the title game in only his second year as coach. But before coming to Seneca Valley, Vestal guided Hopewell to three WPIAL title games, winning one.

McKeesport, West Allegheny's opponent in 5A, is led by first-year coach Matt Miller.

In Class 3A, Aliquippa meets Beaver Falls. Aliquippa's Mike Zmijanac is going for his seventh championship. Beaver Falls coach Ryan Matsook is going for his first.

Zmijanac is one of the best coaches in WPIAL history, but a shoutout to Matsook. Things were bad at Beaver Falls when the Tigers were shellacked by Aliquippa in its first game. Beaver Falls isn't the easiest place to coach at times, and the critics were out in full force after that first game. But Matsook and his team hunkered down and haven't lost since.

Ray-sing McKeesport

The McKeesport Tigers have been a slightly different team the past few games. Ray Zellars is back.

Zellars figured to be one of McKeesport's best players this year at running back and linebacker. He led the team in tackles a year ago. But a few days before the Tigers' first game, Zellars sustained a broken left foot and missed the first eight games.

McKeesport was pretty darn good without Zellars, but his return has ignited a spark in the Tigers. In the semifinals last week against Gateway, Zellars ran for 132 yards on 24 attempts.

"He's been amazing. He's exactly what we thought he would be," said McKeesport coach Miller. "He's a game changer for us. He's 5-10, about 240. He's a Jerome Bettis type."

If the Ray Zellars name sounds familiar, it should. His uncle is Ray Zellars, a former star running back at Oliver High in the City League in the late 1980s. That Ray Zellars went on to play at Notre Dame and in the NFL.

Ray ZellarsLook at McKeesport's Ray Zellars and he certainly resembles his uncle Ray in terms of body build, doesn't he? The older Ray Zellars (pictured to the left during his days at Oliver) had those big legs that made him a terror in the City League. He played at the same time as Allderdice's Curtis Martin. 

McKeesport's Ray Zellars will have to have a big game against West Allegheny if the Tigers want to have a chance at winning.


It will be interesting to see the crowd for the four games at Heinz. This will be the best weather in years for the championships. The forecast is for sun and temperatures close to 70.

But what could hurt attendance a little is the games are Friday - and not the Friday after Thanksgiving. Students are in school, although some schools cancel school for the day if their team is playing. But it's a work day for many adults, unlike when the games are played on a Saturday, or the day after Thanksgiving.

Also, don't forget the WPIAL Class 2A and 1A semifinals are Saturday night and weather could be an issue there. The forecast is for rain and possibly some snow mixed in. There could be accumulation of snow Sunday.

So, the WPIAL gets tremendous weather one day for the finals, and bad weather the next for the semifinals.

This Week In High School Sports

Who will win the titles and the semifinals? Check out the wildly popular "This Week In High School Sports" with yours truly and Brian Batko. 

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Friday Night Rewind: Fantastic finishes in semifinals

Written by Mike White on .

A look back at the WPIAL semifinals and quarterfinals Friday night.

There were some blowouts in the WPIAL semifinals Friday night, but has there ever been a group of semifinal games that had so many fantastic finishes? Doubtful.

Two games were decided on the final play of the game. Another was decided by a touchdown with 20 seconds left. Let's relive:

The McKeesport-Gateway game had a finish that has to be one of the wildest in WPIAL playoff history. McKeesport trailed Gateway, 38-35, and had the ball at the Gateway 44 with only 5 seconds left in the game. Quarterback Jayvaun Shears lofted a deep pass that Layton Jordan caught about the 10. With his back to the goal line, Jordan tried to plow backward with three Gateway defenders holding him. When Jordan got to the 8, he threw a lateral to J.J. Harper, who took the ball at the 10 and ran into the end zone for the winning touchdown. (Harper is pictured celebrating with John Grayson).

Incredible. Unbelievable. It brought back memories of a 2007 WPIAL 4A title game at Heinz Field, when Gateway coach Terry Smith called for the "Our Father" play and the Gators scored on a hook-and-lateral with no time left on the clock against Central Catholic. Gateway tied the game but eventually lost in overtime.

Take a look at Friday's play in the highlights below. It is near the end of the highlights.

As for the other fantastic finishes. How about the way Seneca Valley beat North Allegheny in a 6A semifinal? NA scored on the final play of the game when Griffin Sestilli caught a 4-yard pass from Ethan Maenza. The score brought North Allegheny within 28-27. All that was left was the extra-point kick and we'd be headed to overtime. No big deal. But Seneca Valley's Gabe Miller blocked Ben Cinker's kick and Seneca Valley is headed to Heinz for only the second time in school history and the first since 1989.

Meanwhile, the Keystone Oaks vs. Beaver Falls game was a thriller also. Beaver Falls won when Derrell Carter scored on a 7-yard run with 20 seconds left in the game. Now it's Beaver Falls and Aliquippa again.

Quips vs. Derry 

Derry's fans came out in force Friday for their beloved Trojans' game against Aliquippa. But the best season in Derry history ended with a 46-20 loss to the Quips. I don't know if people fully realize how incredible it is that Aliquippa is going to the championship for the ninth consecutive season.

A great run by Derry. A great turnaround story. Check out the highlights from the game:

Other thoughts

**** It has been documented about how scoring has increased so much in the past decade. Friday night's game illustrated the fact again. Neshannock set a WPIAL record for points in a playoff game with a 71-28 victory against Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic in a 2A quarterfinal.

Also, Jeannette scored 69 points, Central Catholic 53, Washington 61. Central Catholic scored 63 in a 6A semifinal? What gives? Obviously the Pine-Richland defense.

**** Paris Ford was up to his usual tricks again. He scored on two runs, a punt return and an interception return in Steel Valley's easy win. He is definitely the prize of Pitt's recruiting class and having a terrific season. I think he might be able to help that secondary at Pitt right away next year.

**** Clairton's Lamont Wade had knee surgery less than two weeks ago to clean up a meniscus problem. It's almost as if Wade said, "What's the big deal?" All he did in his first game back was run for 225 yards in a 46-8 win against Fort Cherry.

**** The times of the championship games have not been set yet for Friday at Heinz Field. The WPIAL will announce the times by Monday, but it will depend on what order Root Sports wants the games. Root will televise all four games, but two will be shown on delay because the station is carrying a Penguins game Friday night.

This much is certain. The 3A game will start things off at 11. The second game will also be live at 2. Root will decide if it wants the 6A, 5A or 4A game live.

**** Quarterback Geno Stone is having a tremendous year for New Castle. And the late-season switch of receiver Marcus Hooker to running back is having huge dividends. After running for more than 200 in the quarterfinals against South Fayette, Hooker ran for 178 against Ringgold.

But what will Hooker and Stone be able to do against Thomas Jefferson?

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Friday Night Countdown: Predictions and notes

Written by Mike White on .

The WPIAL football playoffs continue tonight. For updates on all games, follow @PGVarsityXtra on Twitter. Now for some notes and predictions.

It will be a first

No matter who wins the Gateway-McKeesport game tonight, a coach will be in the championship game for the first time.

Don Holl has coached at a few other places, including Seneca Valley, but this is his first year at Gateway. Matt Miller (pictured) also is in his first year as McKeesport's coach. Seneca Valley has made a championship game only once in school history (1989).

Here is a little playoff factoid I came up with. By beating Upper St. Clair last week, Miller became the first McKeesport coach not named George Smith to win a WPIAL playoff game since 1938 when the Tigers won the WPIAL title with  38-20 victory against Johnstown at Pitt Stadium. John Tinson was the coach back then.

George Smith won many playoff games during his time as McKeesport's coach before retiring after last season. Miller, a longtime Smith assistant, took over.

Remembering crazy playoff system

Speaking of Seneca Valley in 1989, that brings back memories of how crazy the PIAA playoff system was back then. Wait, it wasn't crazy. It was stupid.

The PIAA playoffs didn't start until 1988 and the league had a goofy points system back then where district playoff games didn't always count in the PIAA point system. Also, some teams were playing in one class in the WPIAL, but were another class for the PIAA playoffs.

How crazy was it? Well, get this. Aliquippa beat Seneca Valley in the WPIAL 3A title game in 1989. But Aliquippa didn't go to the PIAA playoffs. Neither did Seneca Valley. Greensburg Salem represented the WPIAL in the PIAA AAA playoffs, despite losing to Seneca Valley in the first round.

The reasons were: Seneca Valley played 3A in the WPIAL, but was classified 4A in the PIAA. So, Seneca Valley didn't qualify in 4A. Aliquippa didn't qualify in 3A, either. Under the PIAA's point system, Greensburg Salem wasn't eliminated from PIAA contention because it lost to a 4A team. And when it was all said and done, Greensburg Salem had more PIAA points than Aliquippa.

Confusing? Yes. Makes no sense? For sure. The PIAA wisely got rid of that system.

Hill for 4,000?

Thomas Jefferson has had some pretty good running backs during Bill Cherpak's career as coach. But Quinton Hill (pictured No. 32) could be in a class by himself after tonight. Hill needs only 88 yards to become the first TJ runner to rush for 4,000 yards in a career. Hill has 3,912 on 487 carries.


How odd is it that all six semifinal games in 6A, 5A and 4A are rematches of games earlier this season? But that is a by-product of six classifications. Not that many teams are in three of the classifications and there are only two conferences in these classes.

Also, for the first time since the WPIAL started taking four teams from every conference to the playoffs in 1997, this is the first time that four teams from the same conference have made the semifinals. It has happened in 6A, where Central Catholic, North Allegheny, Seneca Valley and Pine-Richland are all from the Northern Seven.


So the playoffs are not bringing out the best in my prognosticating ability. Was 22-11 last week, which brought season total to 105-46 (.695). Here we go again:

6A SEMIFINALS - Central Catholic over Pine-Richland; North Allegheny over Seneca Valley.

5A SEMIFINALS - West Allegheny over Woodland Hills; McKeesport over Gateway.

4A SEMIFINALS - Thomas Jefferson over West Mifflin; Ringgold over New Castle.

3A SEMIFINALS - Aliquippa over Derry; Keystone Oaks over Beaver Falls.

2A QUARTERFINALS - Steel Valley over Laure; Riverside over Freedom; Washington over Brentwood; Neshannock over Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic.

1A QUARTERFINALS - Clairton over Fort Cherry; Bishop Canevin over Northgate; Rochester over Imani Christian; Jeannette over Springdale.

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Friday Night Rewind: Plenty of scoring again in WPIAL playoffs

Written by Mike White on .

Notes, thoughts and highlights from the first night of the WPIAL playoffs.

It has been documented how scoring in WPIAL football has been on the rise, not only in the regular season but also the playoffs in recent year. The first night of the 2016 playoffs saw two of the highest-scoring playoff games in WPIAL history.

In two wild contests, New Castle upset South Fayette, 51-43, in a 4A quarterfinal while Springdale defeated Carmichaels, 50-44.

The 94 points scored in both games ties for the fifth-most in a playoff game. The most was 118 when Jeannette defeated Aliquippa, 70-48, in 2007. The second-highest total is 104 when New Castle defeated Indiana, 55-49, in 2008.

Fort Cherry brings respect

The Tri-County South in Class 1A has been much maligned for its playoff performances over the years, but Fort Cherry maybe brought the conference a little respect when it defeated Sto-Rox Friday. It was the only win for the Tri-County South, although conference member California plays Bishop Canevin tonight. 

Frazier brought the conference some respect last year when it made the semifinals. But over the past six seasons, Tri-County South teams are now 2-22 in first-round games.

Zane's final game

A tough way for Zane Dudek to end his career. The kid with the best season of any running back in WPIAL history played only a few plays Friday against Gateway before being injured in the abdominal area. His Armstrong team went on to lose to Gateway, 38-20. How bad is the injury? Not sure. But Zane was on his way this morning to watch Washington & Jefferson host Geneva.

Opsatnik for two more

The more West Allegheny wins, the better chance D.J. Opsatnik has at the WPIAL and state record for field goals. Opsatnik made two more Friday to bring his career total to 32. The WPIAL and state record is 35. Bob Milspaw of Peters Township kicked 35 from 1992-95 for the WPIAL record. He is also tied for the state record with David Soldner of Manheim Township, who made 35 from 2004-07.

This n' that

**** All six semifinals in Class 6A, 5A and 4A are rematches of games earlier this year. That's simply a by-product of having six classes. With six classes, fewer teams are in each class, especially in 6A, 5A and 4A. Those three classes have only two conferences. Heck, all four teams in the 6A semifinals are from the Northern Seven Conference. That says something about the Northern Seven, but it also says something about the Southeastern, which everyone knew when the WPIAL made the conferences. What everyone knew is the Northern Seven is much stronger than the Southeastern.

**** Interesting game in Class 2A quarterfinals is Riverside against Freedom. Freedom's coach is Tom Liberty, who stepped down as Riverside's coach after last season.

Before the season started, I was going to predict that either Freedom or Riverside was going to be in the 2A semifinals, but I forgot.

**** I might wear a bag over my head for This Week In High School Sports show with colleague Brian Batko. That's how bad my predictions were - 2-9. That's hideous.

**** Gio Vonne Sanders, Jeannette's fine quarterback, did not play in Friday night's game because of an injury.

**** Gateway had QB Brady Walker with 464 yards passing against Armstrong. That is the fourth-highest total in WPIAL history.

**** The 3A semifinals have the best matchups. Derry vs. Aliquippa has great storylines. But Keystone Oaks-Beaver Falls has is a tremendous matchup also. Can BF defense control Alex Smith?

**** For the record, Derry's last playoff win before last night was in 1995 when it defeated Thomas Jefferson in the quarterfinals before losing to Belle Vernon in the semifinals. Remember Greg Dorn the coach and his son the quarterback?


Great defensive showing by Woodland Hills against Franklin Regional last night. Check out highlights and coaches comments:

Pine-Richland beats Bethel Park on field goal with one second left. Check out highlights:






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Friday Night Countdown: Predictions .... what teams have most undefeated seasons

Written by Mike White on .

Taking a look at the first weekend of the WPIAL playoffs - and the City League championship. But first, a little on the perfect ones.

Eight WPIAL teams finished the regular season with undefeated records. For South Fayette, it was the fifth consecutive regular season. For Washington, it was the third consecutive. For Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak, it was the 10th undefeated regular season on his clock. Wow. Do you realize how impressive that is?

But have you ever wondered what teams might have the most undefeated regular seasons in WPIAL history? Well, even if you haven't wondered, here ya go (please keep in mind this is for regular season only):








GREENSBURG 9 (this includes years as Greensburg Salem and Greensburg)










OK, who will win all of the playoff games? Let's get to it. Should you pay attention? Well, I was 9-3 last week in top games, which brought season record to 83-35 (.703 pct.).

CITY LEAGUE - Brashear over University Prep.

WPIAL CLASS 6A QUARTERFINALS - Central Catholic over Norwin; Bethel Park over Pine-Richland; North Allegheny over Hempfield; Mt. Lebanon over Seneca Valley.

WPIAL 5A QUARTERFINALS - West Allegheny over North Hills; Franklin Regional over Woodland Hills; Armstrong over Gateway; Upper St. Clair over McKeesport.

WPIAL 4A QUARTERFINALS - Thomas Jefferson over Montour; West Mifflin over Belle Vernon; South Fayette over New Castle; Mars over Ringgold.

WPIAL 3A QUARTERFINALS - Aliquippa over South Park; Central Valley over Derry; Beaver Falls over Mount Pleasant; Keystone Oaks over Apollo-Ridge.

WPIAL 2A FIRST ROUND - Steel Valley over Beth-Center; Chartiers-Houston over Laurel; Riverside over Avonworth; East Allegheny over Freedom; Washington over South Side Beaver; Brentwood over Frazier; Neshannock over Serra; Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic over Burgettstown.

WPIAL 1A FIRST ROUND - Clairton over Avella; Sto-Rox over Fort Cherry; Northgate over Mapletown; Rochester over Riverview; Our Lady of the Sacred Heart over Imani Christian; Jeannette over Shenango; Springdale over Carmichaels; Bishop Canevin over California.

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