Elizabeth Forward coach Mike LeDonne knows that his team has faced some stiff challenges from Big Nine Conference opponents thus far in 2012, but even those contests can't prepare his squad for what awaits them Friday.
The Warriors (3-2) will travel about 12 miles north to take on undefeated, conference-leading West Mifflin in what will arguably be their biggest test of the season.
Elizabeth Forward's two losses this season have come against Thomas Jefferson and Trinity, both of which are ahead of the Warriors in the conference standings, but according to LeDonne, neither can match what they will see from West Mifflin.
"They've got a ton of speed, probably more speed than any team we've faced so far," LeDonne said. "What separates them from any challengers is overall team speed."
While the challenge presented by the Titans (5-0, 5-0) is certainly imposing given their track record through five games, West Mifflin's dominance has come just two seasons after it went 4-6.
After a 9-2 campaign last year, the Titans have picked up right where they left off ... and, ah, run with it. An explosive offense has led the way, averaging a Class AAA-best 47 points per game.
There are several notable players on what has proven to be a potent offense, but no single person has stood out more than junior running back Jimmy Wheeler. Through five games, Wheeler leads all WPIAL rushers with 1,061 yards and has scored 14 touchdowns.
"The biggest challenge is to slow down Mr. Wheeler and [quarterback] Derrick Fulmore," DeLonne said. "It's a heck of a challenge for our kids to step up and see if we can stop them."
Elizabeth Forward has lost two games this season, but those losses have been by a combined nine points to teams with a collective 8-2 record. Since those two losses to open the season, the Warriors have been averaging 38.3 points per game in their three wins that have come by an average margin of victory of 32.3 points.
At the head of this recent offensive outpouring has been a two-headed rushing attack of quarterback JaQuan Davidson and running back Rex Pearse that LeDonne readily acknowledges is the team's biggest strength. Davidson and Pearse are among the WPIAL leaders in rushing yards, having racked up a collective 1,056 yards on the ground.
The team's defense has also stepped up the past three games, as it has given up six points per game in Elizabeth Forward's three wins.
For the Warriors, it will take a team effort in order to come out of West Mifflin with a potentially season-altering win.
"Our biggest thing is to play as a total team," LeDonne said. "If we do that, we should be OK."
While accomplished, capable passers can sometimes be in short supply in the primarily run-oriented high school game, WPIAL quarterbacks had a banner night last Friday. A season-high 38 quarterbacks threw for 100 yards or more Friday, four of whom threw for more than 300 yards, another season-best.
Among that group of passers, the South Xtra region was well-represented as 10 quarterbacks from area schools threw for at least 100 yards, with two of those quarterbacks -- Bishop Canevin's Nick DiPaulo and South Fayette's Brett Brumbaugh -- topping 300 yards.
Although extraordinary, such stellar passing days have come to be expected from Brumbaugh this season, as South Fayette's 51-12 win against Seton-LaSalle marked the fifth consecutive time this season Brumbaugh has thrown for at least 180 yards.
DiPaulo, on the other hand, had not topped 160 passing yards in two of his previous three starts, but he came through with a career-best 383 Friday, albeit in a losing effort.
Aside from the obvious Brumbaugh vs. Brumbaugh angle, last Friday's South Fayette/Seton-LaSalle game was billed as a contest to decide the Century Conference champion.
With the Lions winning in surprisingly easy fashion, the road ahead looks decidedly clear. South Fayette's next three opponents all have losing records (the trio are a combined 5-10) and the Lions' toughest remaining game, against South Allegheny in the regular-season finale, comes at home, where they have won 12 of their past 13 regular-season games.
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