Clairton's JoJuan Bray can't stop Sto-Rox's Lenny Williams on the run as the Vikings score on their first possession of the WPIAL Class A semifinal game at Chartiers-Houston H.S.
By Mike White / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sto-Rox knows the championship routine at Heinz Field extremely well, making the WPIAL Class A final for the third consecutive year.
Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, meanwhile, is only a 2-mile drive from Heinz Field. But until this year, the Trojans couldn't figure out how the heck to get down from Troy Hill and over to the North Shore.
North Catholic will play for a WPIAL championship Saturday for the first time since the school joined the league in the mid 1970s. And the game is making people nostalgic.
North Catholic will close the doors at its 73-year-old school after the 2013-14 school year and open a new school in Cranberry. North Catholic alumni seem to be coming out of the woodwork because of the success of this football team.
"We're getting calls from some people who want to come up to the school Friday and some who want to come Saturday morning before the game," said Mike Burrell, athletic director at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic. "They want to come up, buy tickets and just want to look around the school one more time.
"People are coming from out of town for this. One guy is coming from South Carolina. It's almost like a little reunion. They want to see classrooms and even go downstairs and look in the hallways at the pictures of teams from the 1940s and '50s. We live in the past a lot."
Maybe someone will look in that hallway and see a picture of a North Catholic quarterback from the 1940s named Dan Rooney. Now, North Catholic will play in the stadium Rooney helped build as the Steelers chairman.
"I'm sure Mr. Rooney will show up somewhere at Heinz Saturday," North Catholic coach Bob Ravenstahl said. "I think we're going to have a heckuva crowd from our side. The excitement from the alumni has been great. Think of all the kids who played here and never had a chance like this. There is definitely excitement. But what the heck. This is our first time ever in the championship, so there should be excitement."
As for the game itself, it features two quarterbacks who usually have gigantic impacts -- Sto-Rox's Lenny Williams and North Catholic's P.J. Fulmore. Williams is the WPIAL's all-time leading passer and fifth in state history with 8,306 yards. He also is the WPIAL all-time leader and fourth in state history in touchdown passes with 102.
But Williams also is a threat with his running ability -- and plays defensive back. He has rushed for 535 yards this season and had more than 1,000 yards rushing last season. He also is a master of the big play. His 34 TD passes this season average 35.9 yards.
"We know we have to control him and we know we have our work cut out for us," Ravenstahl said.
But North Catholic's defense has been staunch against the run all season.
"Williams isn't easy to bring down," Ravenstahl said. "He reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger. He's got those strong legs and strong upper body."
Fulmore, meanwhile, is a standout running back who missed much of the first half of the season with an ankle injury. When quarterback Adam Sharlow went down with a season-ending knee injury in the eighth game, North Catholic moved Fulmore to quarterback, where he lines up often in the "pistol" formation.
Fulmore doesn't throw much, but he runs often. In the past two games, he has 79 carries for 400 yards.
"To be honest, the thing that impresses me about North Catholic is the patience they have on offense," Bradley said. "They are totally content at chewing up the clock and chewing up yardage, 3-4 yards at a time. You'd think they'd eventually say 'Let's go up top with a pass.' They could, but they are totally patient at running the ball and eliminating the other team's possessions."
Ravenstahl believes he has the best offensive line in WPIAL Class A. The lines are led by two-way tackle Ryan Long, who was the Eastern Conference co-lineman of the year.
"They have skill players and we have skill players," Ravenstahl said. "Hopefully, our lines control the game."
This is the third time in four years these teams have met in the postseason. Sto-Rox defeated North Catholic, 34-20, in last year's semifinals.
North Catholic won, 10-8, in the 2010 first round.
ONES TO WATCH
Sto-Rox's Lenny Williams is the leading passer in WPIAL history, but also is a threat with his running. Receiver Mallory Claybourne hasn't caught many passes lately, but is capable of big plays. Jessie Rippole is a standout lineman and Brendan Blair can disrupt things on defense. ... North Catholic has outstanding lines, led by Ryan Long. Quarterback P.J. Fulmore is a former running back now playing quarterback. Joshua Churchin is the leading tackler on defense.
Dan Bradley is in his second season as Sto-Rox's coach. He was the offensive coordinator before taking over the team shortly before last season. He also had assistant coaching stints at Canon-McMillan, Seneca Valley and South Fayette. In addition to his Sto-Rox duties, he also is Avonworth's boys varsity basketball coach. ... Bob Ravenstahl is in his eighth season as North Catholic's coach. He previously was an assistant and his record is 66-29. Ravenstahl is a district justice on the North Side. He is a 1972 North Catholic graduate but did not play football at the school.
This is North Catholic's first appearance in a WPIAL title game since joining the league in the mid 1970s. Before that, North Catholic played in the Pittsburgh Catholic League. Under Ravenstahl, North Catholic came close to making the WPIAL title game in 2012 and 2009, losing in the semifinals both years. ... This is Sto-Rox's third consecutive championship game appearance, losing to Clairton the past two seasons. Sto-Rox also lost in the 2003 final to Springdale. Sto-Rox won titles in 1966 and 1987.
DO YOU REMEMBER?
Sto-Rox's last championship came in 1987 when it defeated Ellwood City, 19-0, at Three Rivers Stadium. Sto-Rox held Ellwood City to 86 total yards. But Sto-Rox, under coach Larry DiIanni, also featured talented quarterback Jody Dickerson, a junior who became a Parade All-American a year later. Dickerson completed 8 of 14 for 130 yards in the title game. He went on to Michigan State before finishing his career at Edinboro University.
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