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.
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.
Look 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.