North/South/East/West Xtra: Nothing like Heinz Field for high school football teams

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Eight teams will travel on Friday to one of the premier venues of the National Football League to make history for their high schools.

That's when the WPIAL decides championships in its four classifications at Heinz Field, home of the Steelers and University of Pittsburgh.

The first of four games begins Friday at 11 a.m. with the Class A championship. The football carnival continues with championship games scheduled for 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Class AAAA, Class AA and Class AAA, respectively.

Rochester football coach Gene Matsook believes the WPIAL is unique in its site for football championships.

"There are 12 districts in Pennsylvania," he said. "Ours is the only one that uses an NFL stadium to play our championship games."

Matsook and three other coaches who have brought at least one team to Heinz Field hold mostly positive memories. Some things are not apparent until a team steps into the building to begin gameday preparations.

"One thing you find out is that you have just 30 minutes to get ready for the game on the field," said Gateway coach Terry Smith, whose teams have played in four WPIAL Class AAAA championship games but have come up short each time.

"Usually, my kids are on the field an hour or an hour and 10 minutes before the game. Down there, you are not in your routine. It's hard to adjust."

"When we were there last year, we did our stretching in the tunnel that's right beside the field," said Knoch coach Mike King, whose Knights fell to Montour, 42-14, in the 2012 WPIAL Class AAA championship game.

"By that point, you've gone through 12 or 13 pregame warmups, so the kids pretty much know what to do," he said.

King said the shorter warmup period is something he can tolerate for the chance to play for a WPIAL championship at such a well-known venue.

"There isn't a coach in the WPIAL who would pass up the chance to play there if they were only allowed a five-minute warmup period," he said.

Matsook has become an old hand at bringing his Rams to a professional facility for a championship game. Rochester won the Class A title in Three Rivers Stadium's final year in 2000 with a 13-6 victory against Beaver County rival Monaca. And the Rams kicked off the festivities at the new Heinz Field in 2001 with a 27-19 victory against Fort Cherry.

Rochester has won three WPIAL Class A championships at Heinz Field and has been the runner-up in four other games.

"We've been there so many times we've gotten to know some of the people who work there," he said.

"We asked one guy we've gotten to know if he could take us to the tunnel the Steelers use to come out onto the field.

"With us, there was also some of that 'gee whiz' factor that you'd see when a player is going there for the first time. The second time they get there, they're not as wide-eyed. We tell them to enjoy the experience because they earned the right to get there, and it's something they will never forget."

King was so impressed with his Heinz Field experience that he wrote letters to the Rooney family, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and the stadium's grounds crew.

"I got a note back from Mr. Colbert, and he said it was the first time he'd ever received a thank-you note from a high school football coach," he said. "Any football coach who has brought a team there will tell you there is nothing negative about the experence [of playing at Heinz Field]."

Another part of the pregame experience is something teams usually don't see at high school venues.

"One thing we found out is that you couldn't get to the stadium early," Smith said. "When we did get there, we waited on the bus and then everyone had to go through security. The guys had their bags checked, and that was something new for a lot of them. It was different, and some of them handled it better than others."

Matsook has taken Rochester teams to Heinz Field on seven occasions; Smith has been there four times with Gateway. King and Bethel Park coach Jeff Metheny have been to Heinz Field one time each with their teams.

Metheny agreed with the other coaches about the unique challenges present at Heinz Field with the shorter game preparation time and the security checks required of everyone going into the facility -- no matter if they are playing in the game, coaching it or watching it.

He would be more than happy to play at Heinz Field again.

"There was nothing bad about the whole experience," he said of Bethel Park's 10-6 victory against Gateway in the 2008 WPIAL Class AAAA championship.

"Before the game, I was looking around Heinz Field and I was sure that every one of the 35,000 people who live in our community were there. It seemed like everyone was wearing orange and black. That was an experience our kids and the community will never forget."

Most Class AAAA teams play their games on artificial turf, and that constant is true with teams in the WPIAL's lower divisions once playoff time rolls around. But for teams that get to Heinz Field, the title games are contested on a grass surface that can either be in pretty good shape or beaten up, depending on how recently a game has been played on it and the weather on game day.

In any case, the field is at its best during the first game. By the time the fourth game is ready to begin, field conditions can be challenging.

"There is some wear and tear," Matsook said. "When we've played, we're lucky it hasn't rained. But by the time the Quad-A game is being played [in most years that's the last game of the day, but this year the Class AAA game will be the final game], the field conditions could be bad."

Smith agrees with that assessment.

"You don't know what you are going to get at this time of the year," he said. "But the quicker and faster teams will be slowed down when they are playing on grass.

"If you have a big team up front, it could be in your favor as grass is a great equalizer."

Video considerations also are heightened at Heinz Field.

Because the games are televised on Root Sports, plays are replayed on the JumboTron. Television timeouts -- a staple in college and professional football games -- are also part of the experience at the WPIAL championships.

"We play between two and five games a season on television," Smith said. "So it's not a major adjustment for us."

King said the added timeouts evoke conflicting emotions.

"Kids will get frustrated sometime with TV timeouts, but the coaches love them," he said. "With a TV timeout, you can check out your play list or talk to the coaches in the coaches box. The only time I wouldn't like it is if it slows down your rhythm."

Elation usually prevails for teams fortunate enough to reach the championship game.

"This is where the Steelers play," Matsook said. "The first time we played there in 2001, it brought chills. The emotions for the kids are always different. But as a coach, going there to play a championship game never gets old."

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