Heading into Friday night's WPIAL Class AAA matchup against West Mifflin, Mars Area had plenty of reason to be confident. The second-seeded Planets carried a score-at-will offense, a shut-down defense and a sophomore running back with numbers no other Planets 10th-grader had ever posted.
But Mars ran into a West Mifflin team that got a taste of Greater Allegheny Conference play the week before, which should have been a red flag for the Planets.
The Titans (10-1), who finished second in the Big Nine Conference to top-seeded and undefeated Thomas Jefferson, opened the Class AAA playoffs with a 28-14 victory against Knoch in the first round. Knoch is the only team to beat Mars in the regular season, shutting out the Planets in a Greater Allegheny contest, 21-0.
West Mifflin, behind running back Jim Wheeler, jumped on top early against the Planets Friday night and held on to post a 28-13 victory, eliminating Mars in the quarterfinals yet again. In the past seven seasons, Mars has fallen in the quarterfinal round five times.
"We thought we could go a little further than what we did," Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. "When you get behind and make errors, you can't do that. We did that in previous games and were able to get away with it. You can't have penalties, you can't fumble the ball, you can't turn over the ball. This time it caught up with us."
Wheeler capped a game-opening drive with a 20-yard touchdown run for West Mifflin, but Mars fumbled the ball on its second play from scrimmage to set up a 19-yard scoring run by Wheeler and a 14-0 deficit in the first quarter.
Fullback Josh Schultheis, who rushed for more yardage than any sophomore in Mars history, was bogged down by West Mifflin's defense, gaining just 45 yards on 15 carries. As a team, the Planets gained more yards passing (88) than rushing (74) for the first time this season.
Leading the passing game was junior quarterback Owen Nearhoof, who was 6 of 13 for 88 yards and two touchdowns. He got the Planets on the scoreboard in the second quarter with a 15-yard pass in the back of the end zone to junior wideout Jason Lozzi and added a 40-yard scoring toss to Garrett Ashbaugh in the third quarter.
Nearhoof finished his junior season completing 44 of 92 passes for 738 yards.
"I think he had a good season," Heinauer said. "We ran the football. I'm not going to try to add insult to injury and throw the ball down the field when we're already running it down the field. We were scoring 21 points in the first quarter, 35 points at halftime, he's not going to get an opportunity to throw the football very much."
The main reason for the lack of passing attempts was Schultheis.
A 6-foot-1, 225-pounder, Schultheis rushed for 1,682 yards this season on 223 attempts, an average of 7.5 yards per carry ... and he has two more seasons to expand on those numbers.
"He's a self-motivated kid, I'm sure he'll want more," Heinauer said. "He's a little deceptive speed-wise but he'll be physically fit and ready to go. He'll put a lot of time and effort in this winter and he'll want to be bigger, stronger, faster. How much more can he do? We're looking forward to seeing that next year."
Whether the Planets are able to improve on their team numbers next season is another thing. Mars allowed just 11.2 points per game, third fewest in Class AAA, while scoring 397 points on offense, second most in Class AAA.
"We lose some receivers, we lose some linemen, we lose some defensive people. We're going to have to replace them," said Heinauer, who completed his 21st season at Mars. "But our kids got a fair amount of playing time. Along with our JV program and our ninth-grade program, our programs are very successful. I think our JV program was undefeated. We have a lot to look forward to."
Perry Traditional Academy returns to action this week after beating University Prep in the City League championship game, 9-6, on Nov. 3.
Perry (8-2) takes on McDowell (5-5) in a PIAA Class AAAA matchup Friday night at Fairview's Keck Field near Erie. Kickoff is 7 p.m. McDowell returned to District 10 this year after competing in the WPIAL the previous two seasons.
Rick Davis: email@example.com or 412-263-3789.