Against Shaler Area on Oct. 19, North Allegheny senior running back Alex DeCiantis had already eclipsed 125 rushing yards for the third game in a row when he sprained his left ankle.
The injury was mild and he still dressed for every game since. But he has averaged only 3.7 yards per carry since the Shaler game after averaging 6.25 yards through the first eight games.
"It was just one of those irritating injuries," North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. "He never didn't dress, but it bothered him all the way through the playoffs. I don't think he started feeling good until the WPIAL championship."
In that WPIAL Class AAAA title game against Woodland Hills, DeCiantis had only 59 yards on 17 carries, but was key in the second half as the Tigers tried to protect a 21-14 lead.
During the team's second possession of the half, DeCiantis ran the ball seven times for 41 yards on a 15-play drive. While the drive didn't result in points, it took more than six minutes off the clock and helped the Tigers win their third consecutive WPIAL title.
Then last week, DeCiantis wasn't needed much in the team's 49-6 throttling of Erie McDowell in the PIAA quarterfinals. He carried the ball eight times for 35 yards and Walker said he ran better than he has since his injury.
"I think I'm back to 100 percent," DeCiantis said. "I feel like I've made progress each week."
While North Allegheny quarterback Mack Leftwich, who is second in passing yardage and third in touchdown passes in the WPIAL, and the Tigers' passing attack gets a lot of the attention, DeCiantis has been a big part of the Tigers' success the past three seasons.
In 2010, DeCiantis stepped in during the playoffs when seniors Matt Steinbeck and Alex Papson missed time with injuries. DeCiantis rushed for 169 yards and three touchdowns in wins in the PIAA quarterfinals and semifinals as North Allegheny went on to win the Class AAAA state title.
Then last season, DeCiantis was the team's leading rusher with 806 yards as the Tigers won another WPIAL title and lost in the state title game to Central Dauphin, 23-20.
DeCiantis again leads the Tigers in rushing this season with 1,059 yards and has five 100-yard rushing games.
"He has meant a lot to this program over the past three years," Walker said. "Running is a big part of what we like to do."
The Tigers (14-0) have a talented offensive line, led by left tackle Pat Kugler, a Michigan recruit, leading the way for DeCiantis, who at 5 feet 11 and 200 pounds is considered a power running back.
"He's a downhill runner," Walker said. "He does have some speed to get to the outside, but he's more of a physical, blue-collar runner. He wants to punish people. He makes the tough yards."
Much of DeCiantis' toughness comes from his wrestling background. He has qualified for the PIAA tournament the past two seasons and also finished fifth at the USA Wrestling Cadet Freestyle national tournament in Fargo, N.D., in July of 2011.
"Wrestling has given me a mental toughness edge," DeCiantis said. "There are guys who are bigger and faster than me, but I'm able to stay calm and collected."
DeCiantis plans to wrestle at Drexel University in Philadelphia next fall, so this season will be his final one on the gridiron. He wants to go out with a title.
"We have a quote in our locker room that says 'The standard is the standard,'" DeCiantis said. "The standard here is winning WPIAL titles. But we're working hard and won't be satisfied until we win the state title."
North Allegheny will play Wilson High School (13-1) of West Lawn at 3 p.m. Saturday in Altoona in the PIAA semifinals.