Clairton finds itself in a familiar position. The Bears are in the WPIAL Class A semifinals for the eighth year in a row.
But Clairton also finds itself in a very unfamiliar role. These Bears are ’dogs.
For the first time in years, Clairton (10-1) has to be considered an underdog for a WPIAL playoff game. The five-time defending WPIAL champion plays Sto-Rox (11-0) Friday in a semifinal at Chartiers-Houston. Sto-Rox is the Post-Gazette’s No. 1 Class A team and is the WPIAL’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
“I guess we really aren’t the favorite,” said Clairton coach Tom Nola, whose team was the No. 4 seed for the playoffs. “But our expectations are still the same. We still don’t want this to end because we’re not used to that. I think the opponent itself will help get us ready for the emotional part, too.”
Sto-Rox, which lost to Clairton in the past two WPIAL title games, features quarterback Lenny Williams, the all-time leading passer in WPIAL history with more than 8,000 yards. This season, Williams has completed 109 of 163 for 2,354 yards and also rushed for 405 yards on 83 carries.
Sto-Rox receiver Mallory Claybourne also is a big-play threat, averaging 25.6 yards on 38 catches. Running back Brendan Blair has rushed for 706 yards. Overall, Sto-Rox is averaging 45 points and will face a Clairton defense that has been vulnerable at times this year, giving up 159 points. Clairton played 16 games in each of the past five seasons and never gave up more than 108 points in those years.
“They have athletes everywhere. This is definitely our biggest challenge this year,” said Nola, whose team gave up 35 points last week to Fort Cherry. “After the Monessen game early in the season, we had been playing pretty well defensively until the first half last week.”
In the other semifinal, Neshannock (9-2) and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic (11-0) meet for the second time this season. In the eighth week, North Catholic defeated Neshannock, 21-14.
In that game, North Catholic quarterback Adam Sharlow had a season-ending knee injury. P.J. Fulmore has moved from running back to quarterback and last week threw for more than 100 yards and ran for more than 100.
But Neshannock also has an excellent dual-threat quarterback in Ernie Burkes, who has thrown for 1,054 yards and rushed for 1,041.
“I think every game you play you look at some things you did well and some things didn’t do well, and try to improve,” said Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio. “The first time we played them, give them credit because they beat us. But it wasn’t the end of the world because it wasn’t like we had the game circled or it wasn’t like the Super Bowl to us. This is what we’ve been waiting for — the playoffs. Our kids are fired up and ready to go.”
One thing is for sure, there will be one team playing in the title game next week for the first time. Neshannock and North Catholic have never made it to a WPIAL championship.
For more on high school sports, go to “Varsity Blog” at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.