The Penn-Trafford football team made history last Friday, becoming the first Warriors squad to reach the WPIAL semifinals since 1997 -- the year they went on to lose in the championship game to Upper St. Clair.
"It is a really big deal for the players and the community," fourth-year coach John Ruane said. "The crowd and fans are into it. This is a great opportunity and they have worked hard."
The opportunity almost came to pass when the Warriors were at 4-3 and about to lose their fourth game at Gateway before a miracle happened. In their second-to-last game of the regular season, the Warriors trailed the Gators, 33-27, with 16 seconds remaining in the game. Quarterback Brett Laffoon connected with John Guzik for a 23-yard touchdown pass to bring Penn-Trafford to within one.
All they needed to do was kick the extra point and the game between two juggernauts duking it out for second place in the Class AAAA Foothills Conference would be heading to overtime. But overtime wasn't good enough for Ruane.
The Warriors elected to go for the 2-point conversion and were successful when Laffoon found Devin Austin in the end zone for the 35-34 victory.
"That was an outstanding game and it really turned our season around," Ruane said.
The Warriors (8-3, 6-2) went on to beat Hempfield Area in the final game of the regular season to earn a home playoff game and all of a sudden the Warriors were not being taken lightly by other teams in the field entering the postseason.
As the No. 5 seed, the Warriors took advantage of home-field advantage in the first round, narrowly disposing of Penn Hills, 22-16. But things would get much more difficult in the quarterfinals.
McKeesport Area, the No. 4 seed, ran the regular-season gauntlet without a hiccup on its way to a Foothills Conference title, including a 34-14 win against Penn-Trafford. But this was a much different Penn-Trafford team this time around.
Tom Stinelli rushed for 161 yards and a touchdown and Austin added 134 yards and two touchdowns to lift the Warriors into the semifinals with a 35-20 win against their Foothills Conference rivals at Norwin High School.
"Tom Stinelli cut his lip really bad Friday in the second quarter," Ruane said. "Then he returned and carried the team. His effort was as good as I have seen in a playoff game. It is such a luxury as a coach to have two guys you can count on."
The Warriors had more than two guys contribute, thanks to Laffoon and the passing game bringing their "A game" as well that night. Laffoon connected with Tim Vecchio for a 44-yard touchdown pass, giving the Warriors their first lead of the game. Laffoon also took matters into his own hands with a rushing touchdown.
"Our balance is a sign of our offensive line being able to block for the run and pass," Ruane said. "I hope that we have enough weapons that [opponents] can't zone in on one player."
Ruane knew his team was going to have to play some physical football and that showed with Stinelli (23 carriers) and Austin (17 carries) delivering a heavy workload.
"McKeesport is a great football team," Ruane said. "Both sides had some guys banged up. When you play them, you are going to feel it the next day. We settled down and played solid defense. I think we played harder and better all around. We weren't sloppy like we were the first time."
Ruane, who has made the playoffs in all four years as head coach for the Warriors, is excited for this group of players to make it to this point, but he knows there is a lot more work to be done.
The Warriors will prepare next for another undefeated team, Central Catholic, in the semifinals on Friday night at West Mifflin Area High School's Titans Stadium. The Warriors were ousted by the Vikings in the first round of the playoffs last year.
"We know how good Central Catholic is," Ruane said. "They are tremendous in all phases. I don't think rankings mean anything at this point. The players might remember the game last year but at this stage in the season, last year isn't significant."
The Warriors are going to continue on Friday to do what they have all season long -- take one game at a time -- but it would be nice to get back to the championship game for which this community has been striving for more than a decade.
"I think we all appreciate that and we are making ex-players happy," Ruane said. "We have alumni who talk to our kids. It is nice to see everyone rallying around us, but no added pressure. These kids were 2 years old [the last time Penn-Trafford advanced this far].
"They are excited that they are mentioned with that group. This year is more exciting than the rest. I am glad the kids can see their hard work pay off, but we are not where we want to be yet."