For two seasons, North Allegheny found ways to be the best team in WPIAL Class AAAA. Doing so a third consecutive season offered a formidable challenge, especially Friday afternoon at Heinz Field against Woodland Hills in the championship game.
But quarterback Mack Leftwich answered the challenge, connecting with tight end Zach Lyon for two touchdown passes that lifted the Tigers to a 21-14 victory against the Wolverines. The win gave No. 1-ranked North Allegheny (13-0) the distinction of being the first program in Class AAAA history to win three WPIAL titles in a row
"It's a collective thing with the group of seniors that we have -- they've experienced it since they were in 10th grade and they have the work ethic, the sacrifice, the commitment that's involved," North Allegheny coach Art Walker said.
"To have a group that's done so much over the past three years, for me as a coach, is remarkable to see."
Though success is nothing new to the Tigers, who won each of their first 11 games by double digits, the final obstacle proved most difficult.
After Leftwich found Lyon for a 44-yard touchdown in the first three minutes, Woodland Hills responded with 14 unanswered points. Quarterback Cody McClelland completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tom Greene and running back Miles Sanders scored on a 1-yard run. In the final minute of the half, wide receiver Gregg Garrity hauled in a Leftwich pass for a 32-yard touchdown, a play that turned out to be the winning score.
Although the neither team scored in the second half, the Tigers and Wolverines (10-3) combined for three trips inside the red zone in the final two quarters, with a North Allegheny victory never seeming more in doubt than early in the fourth quarter.
Facing a fourth down at the North Allegheny 6, McClelland rolled right and threw through the characteristic Heinz Field wind to an open Khalil Harper in the end zone, but the pass fell short, one-hopping into Harper's chest.
The Wolverines would advance no closer the rest of the game against a stout defense that surrendered little in the final 24 minutes.
Woodland Hills won the battle of the running games, churning out 113 yards in 32 attempts with Sanders' 97 yards on 17 carries leading the way. North Allegheny managed 79 yards on 40 carries with Alex DiCiantis picking up 59 tough yards on 17 tries.
The Tigers, however, controlled the air, with Leftwich completing 13 of his 23 passes for 219 yards, three touchdown and no interceptions. McClelland clicked on 8 of 22 for 163 yards with one interception and one touchdown.
"I told the kids before the game, man-for-man, you've played against as tough a guy as you're going to face, but they've got them at every position," Woodland Hills coach George Novak said of North Allegheny.
"They're definitely, man-for-man, the most talented team we've had to face."
The loss cost Woodland Hills what would have been a WPIAL AAAA record sixth title.
Nevertheless, the Wolverines considered their season a success.
"Our success came because we had a family atmosphere -- there were no superstars on our team, no one thought they were better than anybody," linebacker Alex Beasley said. "We have a Wolverine motto and that's 'To achieve, you must endure.' Nobody thought we would be where we were today."
North Allegheny's focus now shifts to the PIAA playoffs, where it lost in the semifinals last season, the only blemish on an otherwise perfect season.
"There's absolutely no thought of ever being tired of being here or what it means," Walker said, "We understand that, and the last thing we would ever do is take that for granted. It takes a lot of work and a special group to get here and the ball to bounce your way sometimes.
"I'm just proud of these guys and happy that the run's not over -- I'm just happy to get seven more days with them and play another game. I don't want it to stop."
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @craig_a_meyer. First Published November 24, 2012 5:00 AM