Neshannock embraces challenge vs. Clairton

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Until two weeks ago, Neshannock had never won a WPIAL playoff game.

Now the Lancers hope to stop the longest winning streak in WPIAL history.

Neshannock (10-1) plays mighty Clairton (11-0) in a Class A semifinal Friday night at Chartiers-Houston. Talk about opposite ends of the tradition spectrum. Clairton has won 58 consecutive games and a victory would tie the state record for the longest winning streak that Central Bucks West set from 1997-2000.

Clairton has won four WPIAL titles in a row. Meanwhile, the first playoff win in Neshannock history came Nov. 2 in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.

Considering those traditions, few might give Neshannock a chance to win. But coach Fred Mozzocio insists his players aren't in awe of Clairton.

"Clairton is a dynamic team and they are as athletic as any team I've seen in my 25 years of coaching," Mozzocio said. "We know the task ahead of us. But when I played at New Castle High School the first thing [coach] Lindy Lauro used to say to us was, 'If you're not in this thing to win championships, you're in the wrong business.'

"To get to the top of the mountain and be a champion, you have to play teams like Clairton. It's an honor to go on the field and compete against them. But by no means do we feel like we don't belong."

Mozzocio believes his team is brimming with confidence. One of the reasons is because Neshannock owns victories this season against Sto-Rox and North Catholic, who will meet in the other semifinal.

"We feel we're as battled-tested as anyone," Mozzocio said.

But since a season-opening 22-20 victory against Chartiers-Houston, Clairton has defeated every team by at least 35 points.

Neshannock features quarterback Ernie Burkes, who has 2,282 yards of offense. He has completed 112 of 184 for 1,495 yards and also rushed for 787 yards on 86 carries. Eli Owens has 1,280 yards rushing.

One of Neshannock's biggest concerns has to be Clairton's Tyler Boyd, a heavily-recruited running back/receiver who has rushed for more than 1,800 yards this season.

"When I was a kid, I used to like watching old NFL films of Gale Sayers that were set to music," Mozzocio said. "When I watch Boyd and see those cutbacks he makes, I said to myself, 'Man, he's like the modern-day Kansas Comet.'

"But the thing about Clairton is that even if you take Boyd off the field, they're probably still 11-0. They are a talented group and also well-coached."

Sto-Rox vs. North Catholic

In the other semifinal Friday, Sto-Rox (11-2) meets North Catholic (9-2) at Dormont Stadium. A win would put North Catholic into a title game for the first time since the school joined the WPIAL in the mid 1970s. Sto-Rox lost a year ago in the championship game to Clairton.

North Catholic relies heavily on its running game, led by sophomore halfback P.J. Fulmore, who has more than 1,600 yards rushing. But the Trojans will face a Sto-Rox defense that has improved dramatically in the final half of the season. In the first six games, Sto-Rox gave up 164 points. In the past five games, Sto-Rox has allowed 15 points.

"I think probably at the halfway point of the season we started to play together more," Sto-Rox coach Dan Bradley said. "We started playing assignment football on defense, being a lot more consistent with effort and gap control. ... I would say our defense has improved a lot, along with our offensive line."

Sto-Rox features one of the most potent dual-threat quarterbacks in the WPIAL in junior Lenny Williams, who has almost 3,000 yards of offense. Williams has completed 108 of 187 for 1,947 yards and also rushed 117 times for 996 yards.

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For more on high school sports, go to Varsity Blog at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.


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