Nearly every starter on the North Allegheny football team has something that Elijah Zeise doesn't -- a state championship.
North Allegheny won the PIAA Class AAAA championship in 2010 when Zeise was a freshman and playing on the junior high team. The Tigers were eliminated in the semifinals last season when Zeise, a wide receiver/cornerback, was their lone sophomore starter.
Now North Allegheny (15-0), with seniors filling 19 of the 22 starting positions, will face Coatesville (13-2) in the state final at 6 p.m. Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey and Zeise is literally counting the hours until the kickoff.
"This is the second week in a row that we're playing on a Saturday and I don't like that," Zeise said. "It seems the week lasts forever before you get to play. I'm anxious to get to Hershey and play the game."
North Allegheny has been one of the favorites to win the state title since the beginning of the season and Zeise has quietly played a large role in the Tigers winning their third consecutive WPIAL championship then advancing to Hershey following PIAA playoff wins against McDowell and West Lawn Wilson.
While he hasn't generated as many headlines as quarterback Mack Leftwich, wide receiver Gregg Garrity and lineman Patrick Kugler, Zeise has been North Allegheny's big-play man. Six of his nine touchdowns have covered at least 38 yards.
Zeise has had touchdown receptions of 94, 78, 64, 63 and 38 yards and has also returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown. A 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior, Zeise has 23 receptions for 677 yards (29.4 yards per catch).
"He's deceptively fast because of his long strides," North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. "A lot of times the defensive backs think they are even with him and then he goes right by them on deep routes."
Zeise's most memorable play of the year came on the first play from scrimmage in a 47-17 victory against Seneca Valley in the WPIAL semifinals when he hauled in a 64-yard pass from Leftwich for a touchdown.
"One of the important points of our game plan that week was to make sure we got off to a good start and not let Seneca Valley get any momentum," said Zeise, whose father, Paul, is a sports writer at the Post-Gazette. "That was a great feeling to score on the first play of the game."
The most impressive play by Zeise came in a 49-0 blanking of Butler in the third week of the season when he caught a 94-yard pass from Leftwich. That came immediately after an 84-yard touchdown pass from Leftwich to Zeise was nullified by a holding penalty.
"We ran the same exact play and it worked both times," Zeise said. "That was pretty cool."
Zeise, who admits he likes offense better than defense because of the playmaking opportunities, said "It's harder to do that on defense."
As good as Zeise is on offense, however, Walker believes he is an even better cornerback.
"He's a bigger corner, so he's got a lot of range and he's tough to throw over," Walker said. "He does a nice job in run support. He recovers really fast for his size. He's a very good cornerback."
Walker also is impressed by Zeise's football smarts, part of the reason he was able to start last season as a sophomore.
"He listens and he learns," Walker said. "He not only understands our coverages and the things we're trying to do but he also has a good understanding of what the other team is doing. He catches on to things fast."
First Published December 13, 2012 5:00 AM