North Xtra: In its final year on Troy Hill, North Catholic gets its first WPIAL title shot

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Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School football coach Bob Ravenstahl had a tough time putting words together moments after his Trojans football team had vanquished Neshannock, 27-14, in a WPIAL Class A semifinal football game this past Friday night at Mars Area High School.

"Words can't describe the feeling of the team and myself, to be honest with you," he said.

Words, though, really weren't needed. P.J. Fulmore, the Trojans' multi-talented offensive threat and defensive standout, gashed the Lancers' defense for 216 yards on 42 rushes and scored four close-range touchdowns as the Trojans improved to 12-0 and meet equally perfect Sto-Rox (12-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Heinz Field.

The Vikings advanced with a 24-19 victory against five-time defending WPIAL champion Clairton, who also had won four successive PIAA Class A championships.

No, words could not describe the team's emotions. But Fulmore's actions and that of his team's offensive line were more than enough to convey the message that a second victory against the Lancers was not out of the realm of possibilities.

Ryan Long, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior offensive lineman from Shaler, said he and his linemates knew the task of opening up running room for Fulmore would be paramount. But he said there was plenty of motivation provided by the Lancers going into the game.

"All week, [Neshannock players] were talking on Twitter, and they thought they were going to win the game," he said. "But we came out and played North Catholic football, and that's the bottom line. From the first quarter, we ran the ball and had an effective running game. P.J. stepped up and held on to the football."

No one appreciated it more than Fulmore, a 5-8, 180-pound junior, who is closing in on 1,000 rushing yards despite missing four games with a high ankle sprain. The 216 yards he gained and the four rushing touchdowns he scored against the Lancers last night gives him 845 yards on 158 rushes, an average of a bit less than 5.35 yards per rush. He now has rushed for 13 touchdowns.

"Our line kept opening up the holes, and I kept running behind them and the fullbacks," he said. "The four touchdowns [I scored] is due to the line. They opened the holes for me."

With the game tied 7-7 at halftime, the game turned when North Catholic place-kicker Michael Tarasovich banged his second-half kickoff off a Neshannock player, and Jerome Turner pounced on the ball at the Neshannock 45-yard line. Twelve plays and nearly six minutes later, Fulmore bulled over from the 1-yard line to give North the lead for good at 14-7 with 6:07 left in the third quarter.

"[The second-half kickoff] wasn't planned that way," Ravenstahl said. "It was supposed to go through [the front line]. Unfortunately, for them, it hit their kid, and we recovered. We've been working on on-side kicks pretty much the whole season, and we were prepared to get on the ball."

Long said the first game against the Lancers gave him and his teammates an idea of what to expect when the teams met again.

"You would think they would know what we were doing, but they didn't," he said. "They didn't stop us again, and we played a great game. We executed our game plan We worked all summer for this."

Ravenstahl is pleased with how well the offensive line has played, helping the team to average 33.2 points per game.

"That's the best offensive line in Single-A football," he said. "That might be the best line in all of [WPIAL] football, as far as I'm concerned Those kids always come to play and have been playing together for a long time."

Long said the first trip to Heinz Field is important for many reasons, not the least of which is this is North Catholic's final year in its present location. The school's new campus located in Cranberry on Pennsylvania Route 228 is just a few miles from the Mars High campus.

Right now, the venerable school on Troy Hill will reverberate with plenty of enthusiasm from players, students and alumni.

"Before the game, we said we weren't doing just for last year's team or the team before that that lost in the semifinals," Long said. "We're doing this for the whole institution and anyone whoever passed through that locker room at North Catholic."

Fulmore said the team's resilience in the face of injuries to some key players has been remarkable.

"It's the greatest feeling," he said. "We've been working hard all year, and to be able to go to Heinz [Field] is just great."

Should the Trojans defeat the Vikings, the team will head back to Troy Hill and do something that occurred more frequently whenever the school defeated Central Catholic back when the two old Catholic League rivals played their annual game and that's ring an old church bell adorned in North Catholic Scarlet and Gold that is suspended above the school's gymnasium, Graham Court.

Since those two schools don't currently play each other, the bell is now rung when a North Catholic team wins a WPIAL championship. Ranvenstahl, a 1972 North Catholic graduate, hopes that "Ring the Bell" chants by the school's fans will be fulfilled.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to do that next Saturday," he said.

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