Ray Braszo and the West Mifflin Titans football team were hoping the third time would be a charm when they faced West Allegheny in Friday's WPIAL Class AAA championship game at Heinz Field.
Unfortunately for them, they had to settle for second best again.
Braszo and his Titans squad became the third team since the merger of West Mifflin South and West Mifflin North in 1984 to advance to a title game, but all three teams came up short.
"I'm disappointed in our showing, but only eight teams in the WPIAL were fortunate enough to make it this far," said Braszo after watching West Allegheny and its "wildcat" offense record a convincing 34-8 victory. "I'm very proud of what the kids were able to accomplish."
It was the third time since 2000 that a West Mifflin squad has played in a WPIAL championship game, and the second against West Allegheny. And Braszo was the coach in all three games.
In 2000, West Mifflin lost, 21-7, to West Allegheny. The Titans made a return trip to the finals in 2004, but were shut out, 20-0, by neighboring rival Thomas Jefferson.
"We overachieved," Braszo said. "I don't think anybody expected us to get this far after losing so many starters from last year's team."
West Mifflin shared the Big Eight Conference title with Thomas Jefferson in 2011. The Titans lost 13 starters from that team, including star tailback Shamar Greene, who rushed for 3,269 yards during his career.
"The kids didn't let our graduation losses become a problem," Braszo said. "The kids who replaced them stepped in and kept it going."
West Mifflin posted an 8-1 record during the regular season, with its only loss to Thomas Jefferson, and were seeded No. 7 in the 16-team Class AAA bracket. The Titans opened the playoffs with a 28-14 win against Knoch, last year's WPIAL runner-up.
Then came two upsets. West Mifflin knocked off No. 2 seed Mars, 28-13, in the quarterfinals, then defeated No. 3 seed Central Valley, 36-35 in overtime, in the semifinals.
"We came a long way, and beat some very good teams along the way," Braszo said.
The Titans finished with an 11-2 record.
Despite the loss of Greene, West Mifflin averaged 33.8 points per game. Junior tailback Jimmy Wheeler picked up the slack by rushing for 2,226 yards on 289 carries.
"Wheeler was mostly a backup last year," Braszo said. "He did a phenomenal job stepping in for Greene. It's nice to know that we have him back next year."
Wheeler's performance played a big part in West Mifflin's success, but senior quarterback Derrick Fulmore played an equally large part. In his second year as the Titans signal-caller, Fulmore rushed for 942 yards and threw for 799.
"Derrick provided the leadership we needed with so many new faces in the lineup," Braszo said. "He will be tough to replace."
Fulmore is one of six Titans starters who will graduate. The others are wide receiver Jared Wright, left tackle James Popa, left guard Joseph Faiello, center James Keys and tight end Marcus Martin.
Braszo was asked who the leading candidates to replace Fulmore are.
"Jeff Foreman and Karlyn Garner were backups," said Braszo. "Foreman was one of our linebackers until an injury [in week eight] against Trinity ended his season. Foreman is a junior and Garner is a freshman. We'll just have to see who steps up."
West Mifflin's defense will be hit hard by graduation, as eight of the 11 starters are seniors. Five of the eight were also starters on offense, as Popa and Faiello were tackles, Keys was a linebacker, Wright was a cornerback, and Fulmore was a free safety.
The other seniors on defense were end Hayden Rotella, linebacker Kenny Hughes and cornerback Davon Dutrieville.