If the Central Catholic football team puts its shirts on hangers and jackets on coat racks, where do they put another useful piece of cold-weather clothing?
"We definitely hang our hat on the running game," coach Terry Totten said.
OK, so that might have been a poor attempt at humor. But it's likely more effective than the attempt opposing defenses are making to slow down the Central Catholic rushing attack, which faced little resistance during the regular season and has found a groove in the postseason.
If it seems like the Vikings are in a rush to get to Heinz Field, well, they have been. A powerful running game flexed its muscles in the first two rounds of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs, rushing for 688 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Vikings gouged the Baldwin defense for 413 yards in a 56-10 win and then ran for 275 yards in last week's 27-21 quarterfinal triumph against Gateway.
When Central Catholic (11-0) takes on Penn-Trafford (8-3) in a semifinal Friday at West Mifflin, expect the Vikings to lean on their ground game to try to get them to the championship game for the first time since their thrilling, 35-34 overtime win against Gateway in 2007.
"[Running the ball is] definitely our mentality," Totten said. "We've got some experience up front. I don't want to try to rank [the run game] with any of the other Central teams we've had, but I will say that they are pretty good."
Luigi Lista-Brinza is one of the top running backs in Class AAAA. He has rushed for team highs of 1,233 yards and 14 touchdowns. Lista-Brinza followed up a 120-yard effort against Baldwin by rushing for 197 and three touchdowns against Gateway.
"He's been around a long time," Totten said. "He's definitely a leader on the football team. He has a lot of playoff experience, so that's an intangible part, as well."
What makes Lista-Brinza's stats even more impressive is that he has accumulated them in just seven games. He sustained an injury to his left ankle against Seneca Valley Sept. 27 and missed the final four games of the regular season.
When the Vikings were missing their workhorse back, they simply went into the stable and showed off their depth. In back-to-back games against playoff-bound teams Pine-Richland and North Allegheny, Riley Redman rushed for 224 and 187 yards, respectively. Redman found the end zone three times against Pine-Richland, while teammate Devin Faloon scored three touchdowns against North Allegheny. Redman has 932 yards and 11 touchdowns on the season, averaging 10.1 yards per carry.
In the playoff opener against Baldwin, three Central Catholic players rushed for at least 100 yards. In addition to Lista-Brinza, Redman had 102 and quarterback J.J. Cosentino 100.
Of course, many of those yards wouldn't be possible if it weren't for a veteran offensive line led by tackles Terrence Stanton and Dan O'Neill, and guard Steven Wood. All three are seniors.
Penn-Trafford, which is in the semifinals for the first time since 1997, is no stranger to defending prolific rushing attacks. The Warriors played McKeesport twice this season, upsetting the Tigers, 35-20, in the quarterfinals. In that game, Penn-Trafford rushed for more than 400 yards.
Totten knows his team will be in for a fight.
"They're extremely well coached. You're not going to find any of their guys out of position," he said. "They play hard and they're tough kids. Their backs run hard. They use their quarterback well. We're not surprised to see them around."
Quad-A heavyweights ousted
McKeesport and Gateway had title dreams in what is a loaded Class AAAA playoff field, but both teams saw their seasons end with quarterfinal losses.
McKeesport's departure came as more of a surprise. The Tigers (10-1) had been cutting through opponents like a buzzsaw with their flexbone offense firing on all cylinders. The Tigers had rushed for 492 yards in the first round and then faced a Penn-Trafford team it had defeated, 34-14, in the regular season. But for the first time all season, McKeesport wasn't the most physical team on the field. Penn-Trafford rushed for more than 400 yards in gaining the win.
Gateway (8-3) finished the season by losing three of its final four games. The Gators came closer to beating Central Catholic than any other team, losing, 27-21, but the Vikings advanced because of how well they ran the ball. The score was tied, 14-14, in the third quarter, before Central Catholic scored the next two touchdowns to gain some separation.