First-year Sto-Rox High School football coach Dan Bradley was riding a monumental season as he took his No. 2 Vikings to last Friday's WPIAL Class A championship game against the mighty Clairton Bears at Heinz Field.
Although the Bears routed Sto-Rox, 58-21, for its state-record 60th consecutive victory, Bradley knows his team's disappointment will slowly turn to pride over its accomplishments this season.
"I'm proud of them," he said, moments after the Vikings watched their season end with an 11-2 record and a share of the Big Seven Conference championship along with Rochester and Neshannock.
It was the second year in a row that the Vikings lost in the WPIAL Class A championship game. A year ago, Clairton rolled to a 42-6 triumph against Sto-Rox.
"At the end of last season, our goal was to get back here and play better and do all of the things that we didn't do last year," Bradley said. "Last year we committed a lot of penalties [in the championship game] and turned the ball over. For the first half [last Friday], we did the things we wanted to do."
By halftime, it was anyone's game as the Vikings trailed the Bears, 22-13, after an 8-yard touchdown run by Sto-Rox's Brendan Blair with just 42 seconds left in the half.
In the game's first 24 minutes, Sto-Rox more than held its own despite being outgained 217 yards to 137. Most of the Bears' yards came in the air as Clairton was held to minus-17 yards on 10 rushes.
An explosive third quarter altered expectations as Clairton outscored Sto-Rox, 28-8, to put the game out of reach.
Clairton gained its points in bunches in the third period with two touchdowns within a 2:08 span on a touchdown pass from Armani Ford to Terrish Webb with 9:25 left in the quarter, and a 14-yard run by Tyler Boyd with 7:17 left in the third quarter.
After the Vikings closed the gap to 35-21 on a stunning 52-yard run by quarterback Lenny Williams that featured three broken tackles with 4:29 left in the third quarter, the Bears answered with a 77-yard run by Boyd 22 seconds later.
Fewer than three minutes later with 1:08 left in the quarter, Clairton put the game out of reach at 50-21 on a 26-yard scamper by Bryon Clifford.
"[Clairton's defense] did a really good job of closing down the running lanes [in the second half]," Bradley said.
Four times, the Bears scored on touchdown passes. Three of those were thrown by quarterback Armani Ford. The game's first touchdown came on a 35-yard pass from Ford to Titus Howard.
Ford's other two touchdown passes were medium-range efforts as the Bears' Webb, a 6-1, 175-pound wide receiver, ran "out" patterns of 22 and 24 yards. On both touchdowns, he fended off smaller Sto-Rox defensive backs to keep the ball.
Clairton's other touchdown pass featured a double-reverse that found Boyd with the football. Rolling to his right at about his own 35, Boyd found a wide-open Santeaun Sims near the Vikings' 40-yard line, and he easily glided into the end zone.
Bradley said his Sto-Rox players' moods likely will improve.
Of particular importance was the season enjoyed by Williams, a 6-0, 190-pound junior who earned a place on the Post-Gazette's "Fabulous 22" team as a quarterback and defensive back.
Last Friday, Williams was Sto-Rox's leading rusher with 103 yards on 19 carries. He also passed for 106 yards, completing 7 of 22 attempts. Those numbers gave him 1,189 rushing yards and 2,237 passing yards for the season.
"A lot of people didn't recognize us as a threat to Rochester or North Catholic," Bradley said. "I think we got better each week."
That trend is likely to continue. Of the 20 players listed on the Sto-Rox roster who made the trip to Heinz Field last week, just seven were seniors. Players returning next season include Williams, Blair and Javelle Kirkland.
Blair, a 6-0, 185-pound junior running back, finished the year with 799 yards on 127 rushes, an average of 6.3 yards per rush. Kirkland, a 5-6, 140-pound sophomore wide receiver, had 18 receptions for 536 yards, an eye-opening average of 30 yards per catch.
"We have a good mix returning, but we'll lose three linemen," Bradley said. "But we'll have seven starters back on defense. We hope to put some pieces together and continue to work hard."