South Xtra: Elizabeth Forward must step up if it hopes to be a Big Nine factor


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West Mifflin Area and Elizabeth Forward have been long-standing rivals on the football field, with their series extending back more than 50 years (providing, of course, one counts the era of West Mifflin North through 1984).

But the familiar foes will do something a bit different when they square off this season.

They'll showcase their talents in front of a television audience.

The Mon Valley adversaries will meet tonight in a Thursday night showdown that has major implications on the race for the WPIAL Class AAA Big Nine Conference title. Root Sports will be there, as the game was picked as the McDonald's High School Football Game of the Week. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Elizabeth Forward's Warrior Stadium.

West Mifflin (5-0, 5-0) is hoping to take another step toward an expected "Battle of the Unbeatens" with Thomas Jefferson (5-0, 4-0) the final game of the regular season. The third-ranked Titans and top-ranked Jaguars are the only teams in the Big Nine without a conference loss.

West Mifflin's only remaining conference game between Elizabeth Forward and Thomas Jefferson is an Oct. 18 meeting with visiting Trinity (1-4, 1-3).

"Obviously, [a win against Elizabeth Forward] would put us in a great position to play for the conference title," West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo said. "We'd have to win this and then we still have Trinity. If we want to win the conference [title] outright, we've got to win this game."

Elizabeth Forward (4-1, 4-1) must win this game to keep its conference title chances alive. Elizabeth Forward's lone setback was a 42-0 loss at Thomas Jefferson on Sept. 6. The Warriors still have upcoming conference games at Ringgold (3-2, 3-2) and against Albert Gallatin (2-3, 1-3).

"Anytime you play West Mifflin, it's a big game," Elizabeth Forward coach Mike LeDonne said. "They've been one of the two top dogs [in the conference] for a while. The goal we're trying to set is to knock off whoever [the top dogs are]. West Mifflin and Thomas Jefferson are the two."

Just as is the case against Thomas Jefferson -- the Warriors have lost to the Jaguars 24 consecutive times -- history is not on Elizabeth Forward's side when it comes to defeating West Mifflin. The Titans have won eight of the past nine meetings and 12 of the past 14. The Warriors have scored only three points against the Titans in the past three meetings combined.

A year ago, West Mifflin shut out Elizabeth Forward, 27-0, behind big rushing performances from Jimmy Wheeler (139 yards, one touchdown) and Derrick Fulmore (116 yards, two touchdowns).

Fulmore graduated, but Wheeler is still around. He's also still running around and past defenders. Wheeler, who leads the WPIAL in rushing (1,312 yards) and touchdowns (17), is the centerpiece of an offense that averages a Class AAA-best 46.6 points per game. In a 42-28 win against Ringgold last week, Wheeler rushed for 366 yards and six touchdowns.

"The talent that he is, he only needs a little bit of room. If you break down one time, he can take it to the house," LeDonne said.

West Mifflin quarterback Karlyn Garner doesn't throw the ball much (18 of 26 for 508 yards), but it's paid the Titans dividends when he has. Of his 18 completions, six have gone for touchdowns.

Elizabeth Forward can light up the scoreboard also. The Warriors have scored at least 35 points in all of their wins and are led by quarterback JaQuan Davidson and wide receiver Matt Bernadowski. In last week's 56-20 win against Uniontown, Davidson connected with Bernadowski for three touchdowns.

Bernadowski has been a breakout star for the Warriors. He is among the WPIAL leaders with 14 touchdowns.

The offensive weapons don't end there. The Warriors have been getting a lot of production from their running backs, a group led by Jalen French and Ryan Wardropper. French rushed for 190 yards against Uniontown and Wardropper finished with 130.

"They're a little more balanced this year," Braszo said. "They have good running backs. The little guy, French, is explosive.

"Of course you have to worry about JaQuan, who is also a great runner. They've been going deep to Bernadowski. They've been having a lot of success with that."

Defensively, West Mifflin is allowing 9.2 points per game and Elizabeth Forward 16.4.

The Matchup

• Game: Elizabeth Forward (4-1, 4-1) vs. West Mifflin Area (5-0, 5-0).

• When: 7 tonight.

• Where: EF's Warrior Stadium.

• Skinny: If the Warriors harbor any hopes of getting at least a share of the conference title, they'll need to defeat the unbeaten Titans.



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