Now Tom Nola can breathe easier.
For once, the Clairton High School football coach won't have to answer questions about his team chasing ghosts as the Bears made history with a 58-21 victory against Sto-Rox in the WPIAL Class A championship game last Friday at Heinz Field.
The win marked the 60th in a row for the Bears, who now set their sights on Berlin Brothersvalley at 7 p.m. Friday at Somerset's Golden Eagle Stadium.
Berlin Brothersvalley, the District 5 champion, advanced to the PIAA Class A quarterfinals with a 14-6 victory against North Star last Friday night in a first-round game, also played at Somerset. The winner of that game meets the winner of the Port Allegany-Sharpsville game in the semifinals.
Last Friday's victory meant Clairton has won five consecutive WPIAL Class A championships. Three more victories in the PIAA playoffs would earn the Bears their fourth consecutive PIAA Class A title.
Only Southern Columbia, which won five successive PIAA Class A titles from 2002 to 2006, has been more dominant in Pennsylvania football's smallest classification.
The Bears' past has been impressive. Their present was proving a bit overwhelming for Clairton's soft-spoken coach.
"There was too much media attention [on the winning streak]," Nola said of the run-up to the WPIAL championship game. "We like to concentrate on one game at a time."
For one half, Sto-Rox presented plenty of challenges as the Bears clung to a 22-13 halftime lead.
For 24 minutes, Sto-Rox stayed right with Clairton. The Bears' vaunted running attack was held to minus-17 yards on 10 rushes in the first two quarters. Tyler Boyd, the Bears' do-everything offensive threat, was limited to minus-13 yards on five rushes. As a receiver, he was held to just 12 yards on one reception.
Football, however, is a game in which momentum is dictated by a team's ability to adjust. The Bears did adjust to more than seize the momentum in the game's third period.
By the time the next 12 minutes had elapsed, Clairton had flipped the statistics, owning a 421-to-214 total yardage edge. By game's end, the Bears had outgained the Vikings 501 to 240 and owned a 37-point victory.
The rapid change in fortunes in Clairton's favor was no illusion, Nola said.
"They had an extra person on their line, so we wanted to run away from him," the coach said. "That opened some extra holes for Tyler, and our line started to block better."
Coaches such as Nola will say that games are won -- or lost -- as a consequence of a team's effort. But it would be unwise to discount the change in fortunes for Boyd's individual effort and his team.
Entering the third quarter in the negative area, Boyd quickly reversed that statistic by rushing for 149 yards and scoring two touchdowns as the Bears outscored the Vikings, 28-8, to put the game firmly in Clairton's grasp at 50-21, and the 60th consecutive victory became a formality that played out in the game's final 12 minutes.
Boyd finished with 16 rushes for 144 yards, and the Bears' deficit approach to rushing evaporated as they finished with 27 rushes for 234 yards.
As Nola and his team basked in the victory, the coach said that although he felt some pressure as the Bears approached -- and then surpassed -- the consecutive victory record of 59 set by Central Bucks West, a Class AAAA school, that feeling did not extend to his players.
"Not these guys," he said. "I get nervous all the time, but everyone expected this to happen. We have some very good players, They were confident. And we were confident that we could get it done.
"They've done it for 60 times in a row, and it is a precedent for the whole community.
"These guys just go out and play. We coached them and hoped to get them in the right position. They played. And they accomplished something no other WPIAL or PIAA team has accomplished. We have good athletes."
The only damper on an otherwise festive day for Clairton was a leg injury to senior lineman Devonte Harvey with about 10 minutes left in the game.
While Sto-Rox quarterback Lenny Williams was running a quarterback keeper, Harvey, an offensive lineman and linebacker, was taken out on a block by Vikings sophomore Craig Johnson. Harvey was assisted from the field and was seen walking with crutches.
"He's a two-way starter," Nola said. "We're short of linemen, so someone is going to have to step up."
The Bears made the most of a play that had been seen just in practice before dusting it off in the second quarter.
Boyd was the final player to handle the ball on a double-reverse before uncorking a 74-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Santeaun Sims with 4:05 left in the first half. The play gave Clairton a 22-7 lead.
"We practice it all the time," Nola advised. "A lot of the guys say, 'Coach, why do we do this all the time? We never run it.' We do practice it, and we had a situation [where we could use it]. But we do practice it every week."
As far as Nola was concerned, the Bears were not free and clear at that point as Sto-Rox's Brendan Blair scored from 8 yards out with 42 seconds left in the first half to narrow Clairton's lead to 22-13.
But the explosive 12 minutes that was the third quarter allowed Nola to breathe easier for a couple of days and reflect on what the victory meant not only to his Clairton team but to the small community that calls itself the "City of Prayer."
"These guys are looked up to, even by the adults in the community," the coach said. "No one else has ever done it. We kept [emphasizing] to our players that this game meant something, and it's something that we accomplished. I say 'we' because it was the players, the coaches and the community."
Clairton now has finished the second of the three seasons it hoped to play to completion. The first was a 9-0 record against conference opposition in the regular season. The second was the four-game WPIAL playoffs.
The third season begins this weekend, and it will be the shortest with just three games to play in the PIAA Class A quarterfinals, semifinals and state championship game.
Three more games. Three more challenges. If Clairton's goals are fulfilled, then Nola will again get a chance to breathe easier.
First Published November 29, 2012 5:00 AM