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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Dukes visit Penn State for 6 p.m. tip

Written by Brian Batko on .

Well, no harm, no foul, right?

Duquesne’s exhibition loss to Mansfield last weekend didn’t prove to be a harbinger that this team would go 0-31 against Division I competition. That’s not to say Friday night’s win against Loyola Maryland was all that encouraging, but it sure beats losing, which is exactly what Penn State did at home to an Albany team that was picked to finish third in the America East.

By my estimation, it was quite a bad loss for Penn State. But it was the season opener. Some teams start out rusty. I think the Nittany Lions are better than that, which could be a problem for the Dukes. I’d think there’s certainly no chance of Penn State underestimating another team, which might make it tough for Duquesne to go into State College and leave with a victory. But hey, it wasn’t much of an issue last season with Derrick Colter and Micah Mason leading the way to a 26-point beating.

Regardless, it should be a fun game. Any time you can get an A-10 and a Big Ten team together on Nov. 13, sign me up. On to the scouting report that ran in today’s P-G:

Matchup: Duquesne (1-0) at Penn State (0-1), 6 p.m. today, Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, Pa.

TV, Radio: Big Ten Network, WJAS-AM (1320).

Duquesne: Coming off 65-60 season-opening win Friday against Loyola Maryland. … Routed Penn State, 78-52, last season at Consol Energy Center. … Held Loyola Maryland to 36.5 percent shooting.

Penn State: Coming off 87-81 home loss Friday against Albany. … Junior G Shep Garner scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half. … Leads the all-time series with Duquesne, 27-20, with a 17-4 edge at home.

Hidden stat: This is the second of a program-record eight games in the month of November for Duquesne.

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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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Narduzzi: Pitt heading to Clemson with "upset" on the mind

Written by Jenn Menendez on .

In advance of Pitt’s toughest challenge yet this season, coach Pat Narduzzi spoke this afternoon on the weekly ACC conference call with media about the Panthers needing to head to Death Valley “with upset” on their mind. It's a tall task for the Panthers (5-4, 2-3 ACC) to upset No. 2 ranked Clemson (9-0, 6-0 ACC). 

Game: 3:30 p.m.


Narduzzi's opening statement: "Obviously we have a great opportunity to travel down to Death Valley and play a really tremendous football team. Dabo Swinney has done an incredible job of really building his personnel, his system, put his mark on Clemson football. When you put on the tape, you see great coaching, you see great players, you see execution. They've got a winning attitude. Certainly have things going in the right way. They are the measuring stick really for the ACC conference, where everybody in the ACC would like to be. We get an opportunity to find out how we measure up Saturday at 3. I think our kids are looking forward to it.”

Q. Can you stop Clemson's offense or you just have to try to slow them down?

Narduzzi: “You have to try to slow them down enough. Saw an interesting stat today. They are 91-1 when they have over 500 yards of total offense. I'm like 90 times they've had over 500 yards of total offense? That's where college football is going. You don’t stop ‘em, you got to slow ‘em down. They have major play-makers. Deshaun Watson is running the whole thing. Gallagher is a fast guy. Mike Williams and Deon Cain, Deon is a backup, incredible football player. When you look at the talent, they got three underclassmen declared for the draft already, on top of all the great senior players they have. You slow them down, we got to be in position, we got to keep things in front of us for sure, make them earn it, try not to give up big plays."

Q. What is the one thing you have to do on offense and defense to win at Death Valley this weekend?

Narduzzi: “As a football team, we got to come in with some confidence that you can stop them, slow them down, score on them. Matt has done a great job with our offense all year. We have to continue to make some big plays. We're going to run our offense. We're not going to go down there and trick Brent Venables. You are not going to trick them. You have to out-execute them. Our kids, as you saw last night, upsets happen. That's what we’re going into Death Valley with, upset on our mind. Offensively we got to do what we do. Defensively we have to eliminate the big plays. There's so many weapons. You say stop the run. You have an athletic quarterback. Deshaun can run with it any time. They got weapons outside. Between stopping Deshaun in the backfield, trying to contain Ray-Ray McCloud, Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, Deon Cain. It's a handful. I might add that Jeff Scott and Marion Hobby have done a great job of co-coordinating that offense. When you watch it, it looks maybe simple, but they do a lot of great things with motion and checks you have to get in to really execute your defense. Our guys are going to have to be locked in, focused on the little things that we have to do with the crowd in mind. It will be a great challenge, but I think our kids are looking forward to it.”

Q. I know you could talk for an hour about what James Conner has been through in coming back. What does his return mean to you and the program?

Narduzzi: “It means a lot on the field and off the field. Off the field, you just look at him and we're just happy he's made it this far. He's defeated, beat up cancer. On top of all that, he's come back and really performed at, in my opinion, in an elite way as a football player. A lot of guys can beat cancer, I guess. Doesn’t happen every day. We all know people that have fallen to it. He's a guy that's not only beaten it, he's beaten the odds in every respect. He's been able to come back and compete. I think he's getting better every week.”

Q. I want to ask about your defensive line depth. You've been asked to use those guys a lot more than maybe you thought you would need to due to injuries. How do you think younger players like Folston, Edwards, Watts, have really stepped up these last couple weeks? What do you think they've done that shows you some hope for the future at that position?

Narduzzi: “They've really done a lot, to be honest with you. We've wanted to play them all along. We planned on playing Watts all year. You get into battles, sometimes they don't get as many reps as possible. Amir (Watts) got as many reps last week as he has really combined the entire year on defense. It was great to see. When you put the tape on, he's playing against I think a very good, experienced offensive line in Miami last week, really doing a great job. Jeremiah Taleni, I wouldn't call him a young guy, but a guy that has stepped up and made major improvements. I’m glad those guys are in there. I want Jeremiah, Amir to be playing a lot more inside. Soto and Tyrique Jarett are two great players. To go in there and take every snap, take 64, 85, 79 plays a game is hard. It's great that those guys have stepped up. At the defensive end spot with Folston, Edwards, Allen has done a great job. I'm happy, again, with where they are. They've been there all year. You'd like to be able to rotate those guys more. They're waiting their turn to get in there when we need them. They've stepped up and given us the best they can.”

Q. It sounded like Ejuan Price was disappointed with the way he played against Miami last week. He said as much after the game. How would you evaluate what he was able to do in that game?

Narduzzi: “Ejuan is a perfectionist. We kind of knew Miami would do what we call gap protection. They slid the protection to him a lot, which we anticipated. There's not a whole lot you can do. What you need to do is to continue to recruit and get another guy on the other side that can complement him, some guys inside. If you do that, I'm going to make you pay over here. I think that's the key. But Ejuan played a good game. Ejuan is a perfectionist, if he doesn't get three sacks a game, he's never happy, unless we get a W, then everybody is happy. Ejuan always wants more. That's why he's such a great player. He's motivated. He's focused. He wants to do whatever he can do to win a game.

Q. With the way the defense has been lately, did you see some warning signs of this in August or was this all kind of as the injuries unfolded?

Narduzzi: “I think injuries always play a role in that. You never expect things. I think things happen during the season that you can't anticipate. Obviously during camp I didn't anticipate, because I thought we did a good job against our own people. You're defending a different offense in camp, so you don't really see maybe the weaknesses of what maybe you have until you get into the season. Where we stand right now, I think four of our losses are to top-25 teams, good football teams. Miami is right there. You look at who Miami has lost to, they've lost to top-25 teams, top-10 teams. When you're playing competitive football, I mean, we can go win a lot of games in the MAC, but we play in the ACC conference. It's competitive. It's a work in progress. We're continuing to fight. Nothing surprises me. There's good players. You look at what you're facing every week from Virginia Tech to Oklahoma State to North Carolina with Switzer, now this weekend trying to make Mike Williams and Deon Cain, those guys, Deshaun Watson is a threat running and throwing it. He has a cannon arm. He's throwing the ball 70 yards down the field. He's unique. He's going to be a great NFL football player. I mean, those are things that you can't test yourself in doubles.”



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