In a world of few certainties, one was normally found in the WPIAL for a number of years -- Avella, mired in a perpetual struggle, at or near the bottom of its conference standings.
Faced with one of the smallest enrollments in what is the state's smallest classification, the Eagles were routinely overwhelmed. In a nine-year period from 2003-11, they compiled a record of 5-77 and until last season, they had not secured a winning record since 1994, before most -- if not all -- of their current players were born. In fact, the school had not reached the WPIAL playoffs since 1976.
But in the span of a 48-minute game last Friday that all changed and Avella was, at last, a winner. With a 55-14 victory against Bentworth, the Eagles improved their record to 6-3 and, most importantly, clinched their first playoff berth since the Ford Administration.
For the school located 15 miles northwest of Washington, in a small town surrounded by farming and mining areas, it was a special moment.
Avella was boosted largely by a 5-0 start to the season, one in which it beat four of those five opponents by at least 28 points. But with the more difficult schedule ahead of them, the Eagles were faced with the reality that smacked them in the face last season. It was then that they got off to a similar 5-0 start, only to lose three of its final four games and miss the playoffs.
The same circumstances faced them again this season, but unlike in 2012, when four teams finished with at least six conference wins in the Tri-County South Conference, only three teams finished with that number of conference wins, giving Avella the fourth and final playoff spot.
Quarterback Santino Paris improved considerably as a junior this season, throwing for 1,246 yards and 16 touchdowns during the regular season. His favorite target, wide receiver Zach Thompson, has 23 receptions for 437 yards and eight touchdowns.
While a move away from the brutally competitive Black Hills Conference in 2012 has helped, the Eagles have also been bolstered by the work Ryan Cecchini has done as the team's coach, as they have gone 12-15 in his three-year tenure.
But now, with a playoff spot secured, comes the team's biggest challenge to date -- a first-round matchup at Class A No. 1 Sto-Rox at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Warriors defense sets mark
With one of the area's top Division I-A prospects on offense in junior running back Jordan Whitehead, it's easy to become enamored with the Central Valley offense, one that averaged close to 40 points per game during the regular season.
It was the Warriors' defense, however, that has been most impressive. In nine regular season games, Central Valley allowed just 5.1 points per game, the lowest mark of any team below the Class AAAA level. Five of its eight wins were shutouts and it did not allow an opponent to score more than 14 points this season.
Overall, the points-allowed-per-game total was the lowest in a regular season (by about 12 points) in the school's four-year history.
Coming up empty
Though four teams in the West Xtra coverage area finished the regular season with undefeated records -- West Allegheny, South Fayette, Aliquippa and Sto-Rox -- there were two schools in the area that finished the season without a win -- Burgettstown Area and Freedom Area.
The Blue Devils' 51-15 loss to Keystone Oaks last Friday was the program's 21st in a row, a streak dating back to Oct. 14, 2011.
For the Bulldogs, their winless season comes a year removed from a Class AA playoff berth, but it marks the eighth time in the past nine seasons that the program has lost at least seven games.
Games of interest
Moon at West Mifflin, 7:30 p.m., Friday -- The Tigers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and they landed a game that will feature two of the top rushers in the WPIAL. Moon's Cole Blake (1,457 yards) and West Mifflin's Jimmy Wheeler (2,022) have both enjoyed excellent seasons.
Beaver at Shady Side Academy, 7:30 p.m., Friday -- The offense-versus-defense storyline may be overplayed, but this game will feature the Bobcats, the fourth-highest scoring offense in Class AA, against the Indians, Class AA's third-best scoring defense.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG