WPIAL Class AAA football championship preview

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When West Allegheny coach Bob Palko thinks back to his team's 13-7 victory against Central Valley on Sept. 29, a few things come to mind -- a tough, physical game between two of the WPIAL's best defenses in which a few fortunate breaks gave his team the win.

But while a game played less than two months ago may seem like an easy point of reference for two conference foes about to play again in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game Saturday, it's not ... at least not for the coaches.

Over the course of a season, teams change, whether it's due to injury, personnel changes or simply improvement. Both West Allegheny (12-0) and Central Valley (11-1) are representative of that trend, something that Palko knows will make this game an entirely new entity.

"It's the same defense, that's probably better now, and an offense that seems to be clicking," he said. "We've got our work cut out for us."

Saturday's 8 p.m. game at Heinz Field will mark the third time in the past five years that two Parkway Conference teams have met for the championship.

In fact, of the past 10 teams that made the Class AAA title game, eight of those came from the Parkway.

While it might be hard to draw too many conclusions from West Allegheny's victory earlier this season, Central Valley coach Mark Lyons remembers what impact the game had on his team and its improvement going forward.

"In that first game, they smacked us right in the mouth from the defensive side," he said. "They completely shut down our offense. We've learned a lot of things since that first game."

Led by running back Jordan Whitehead, the Warriors feature an explosive offense capable of making big plays, but in that loss to the Indians, an offense that has averaged 35.7 points was held scoreless (the team's lone touchdown came on an interception return).

The result of that game was not an entirely surprising one. For as talented as both teams' offenses are, their defenses are both among the top three in Class AAA in points allowed per game, with the Warriors first at 7.3 and the Indians third at 10.

If there is a major difference between the teams' first meeting and their upcoming one, it is at the quarterback position, as Central Valley heads to Heinz Field with a new starter in John George. Since George -- a dual-threat quarterback with a flair for improvisational play -- took over as the team's starter, the Warriors have gone undefeated while averaging 38.5 points per game.

"Offensively, they're different now so it doesn't really matter what they did before," Palko said. "With this quarterback, they're a completely different offense."

The Warriors, too, will be faced with a difficult defensive challenge, trying to stop an offense that constantly rotates between different runners and schemes. In all but two of their 12 games, the Indians have scored at least 37 points.

While West Allegheny is the defending WPIAL champion, Central Valley is in its first title game since 2010, the school's first year of existence when the team's current seniors were freshmen.

"I'm sure they were sitting there hoping they could get to this point," Lyons said. "Now they have that opportunity."

ONES TO WATCH

Central Valley's Jordan Whitehead is one of the most versatile and dynamic players in the WPIAL, having accumulated 963 yards of total offense this season. He's also a standout defensive back and kick/punt returner. JaQuan Pennington has also had a fine season with 976 yards rushing and receiving combined. ... West Allegheny features a balanced offense in which four players have rushed for at least 300 yards each this season, a group led by junior Chayse Dillon (1,146 yards). Andrew Koester has been much improved this season, throwing for 1,363 yards, 19 touchdowns and one interception.

COACHES

Mark Lyons has been the coach at Central Valley since the school's inception four years ago. In that time, he has led the Warriors to a 41-9 record (a winning percentage of .820). ... Bob Palko has become somewhat of an institution at West Allegheny, as he is in his 19th year at the school. In that time, he has won six WPIAL Class AAA championships, the most recent of which came last season.

CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY

Central Valley is making its second championship appearance in its four-year existence, the first of which it won by defeating Montour, 24-7. In the other two seasons, the Warriors advanced to the WPIAL semifinals. ... West Allegheny is making its sixth WPIAL championship game appearance, all of which have come since 1997 and none of which it has lost.

DO YOU REMEMBER?

Three of Palko's six WPIAL titles came with a familiar face and name leading the way -- his son, Tyler. A three-time Post-Gazette Class AAA player of the year, Tyler Palko led the Indians to three consecutive WPIAL championships, one of which (in 2001) ended with a PIAA championship as well. Tyler Palko went on to star at Pitt and played briefly in the NFL.


Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG

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