Varsity Xtra: WPIAL champions sprint to the finish
December 14, 2012 10:00 AM
Aliquippa's Dravon Henry waves the school flag after defeating the Washington Prexies Nov. 23 in the WPIAL Class AA championship at Heinz Field. The Quips are looking for their first PIAA title since 2003.
Ben Howard/Post-Gazette photo illustration
All three WPIAL championship teams playing for state titles this weekend bring amazingly similar eye-opening reumes with them ... but to earn a 'best ever' label, they must finish the job.
By Mike White Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For teams that make it to PIAA championship games, the length of the season has been compared to running a marathon. Two scrimmages and 16 games make for four months of football.
But North Allegheny, Aliquippa and Clairton have sprinted the entire way this year.
The three teams from the WPIAL have one more mile to go, playing in PIAA title games this weekend in Hershey. In terms of domination, the WPIAL has never had a trio running so fast into state title games since the PIAA playoffs started in 1988.
North Allegheny, Aliquippa and Clairton are really a one-of-a-kind trio. This weekend, in a town known for chocolate, the three have a chance to put a Hershey's Kiss on top of their seasons and go down as three of the best teams in WPIAL history.
WPIAL teams have won three PIAA titles in the same season only three times before (2007, 2005 and 2001), but not all three teams in those years dominated like these three have as a group. North Allegheny, Aliquippa and Clairton are all undefeated -- all three are 15-0 -- and only once before has the WPIAL had three PIAA champions with undefeated records.
The statistics tell the story of their domination:
• All three teams are among the top 15 scoring teams in WPIAL history. Aliqupppa is No. 3 with 746 points, Clairton No. 4 at 720 and North Allegheny No. 15 at 608. The 2007 Jeannette team that had Terrelle Pryor is No. 1 in WPIAL history with 860 points.
• Aliquippa has won 15 games by an average margin of 44.1 points. Clairton's margin of victory is 40.8 and North Allegheny's 33.1.
• In the postseason, Clairton has outscored six opponents, 289-46, North Allegheny by 253-69 and Aliquippa by 276-49.
"We thought we scored a lot of points this year because we had 600," North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. "Then you look at the numbers Aliquippa and Clairton put up. Wow. Watching those guys and what they do just amazes me."
Clairton (15-0) has the country's longest current winning streak at 62 games and plays Dunmore (14-1) in the Class A title game at 1 p.m. this afternoon. Aliquippa (15-0) meets Wyomissing (15-0) in the Class AA championship at noon Saturday, and North Allegheny (15-0) takes on Coatesville (13-2) in the Class AAAA final at 6 p.m. Saturday night.
"We're all playing in different classifications and playing different levels of competition," Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac said. "But what I appreciate is the dynamics people have to work with. Artie is in a place like North Allegheny while [Clairton coach] Tom Nola and I are kind of like in inner-city areas. There is definitely a different dynamic. But if you know how to do it, it doesn't matter where you're from."
The three teams have gotten this far with different styles. All three have star power with individual players and all three have extremely strong defenses. But on offense, North Allegheny is a throwing team with a superb quarterback in Mack Leftwich, who averages more than 200 yards passing a game.
Aliquippa doesn't throw much, but has a bruising running attack that averages more than 300 yards a game. Dravon Henry and Terry Swanson both have more than 1,400 yards rushing (Henry has 1,796 and Swanson 1,420).
Clairton has one of the most versatile players in the state in running back-receiver-defensive back Tyler Boyd, who is among the top rushers in WPIAL history. But the Bears' passing game also has been effective in the postseason.
While the three teams come from the North (North Allegheny), South (Clairton) and West (Aliquippa) of Pittsburgh, their intersecting point could be a spot in WPIAL lore.
Is it deserving?
"We hear a lot of the talk about how we could maybe be the best Aliquippa team [ever]," Swanson said. "I'd say if we win, without a doubt we deserve it. As athletes, we can match up with anyone. But as much talent as you have, you can't go anywhere without a line."
North Allegheny's Leftwich also had some historical perspective.
"Just from the stats, if we win, I think we would deserve to be [considered among the WPIAL best]," he said. "We're playing arguably the toughest schedule in the state. It's brutal because there are no easy weeks.
"We're averaging over 40 points a game and giving up only seven. If you look at our schedule, that's a pretty impressive feat, considering some of the great teams we have played."
Whether or not these North Allegheny, Aliquippa and Clairton teams deserve to be mentioned among the WPIAL's all-time best can be debated. But there will be no debate if they don't have a kick coming down the stretch.
"It's a must. To be considered great, you have to finish," Aliquippa's Swanson said.
Clairton is trying to become only the third team in Pennsylvania history to win four PIAA titles in a row. Aliquippa has two PIAA titles (2003 and 1991) and North Allegheny also two (2010 and 1990). Both North Allegheny and Aliquippa lost in last year's semifinals.
"Last year, I think we had a great team but didn't finish out the way we wanted," Leftwich said. "For us to be considered one of the top WPIAL teams of all time, you definitely have to finish out 16-0."
Or as Aliquippa's Zmijanac put it:
"You can't even be in the discussion unless you finish."