West Xtra: Central Valley comes a long in a short time

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Compared to most high school football programs around the WPIAL, Central Valley is just a toddler.

In only its fourth year of existence -- following the merger between Beaver County's Center and Monaca school districts -- the Warriors proved they can hang with the Class AAA big boys again this year by making their second trip to the WPIAL championship game since capturing a crown during their 2010 inaugural season.

Despite coming up short against Parkway Conference foe West Allegheny, 16-6, in last Saturday night's WPIAL Class AAA title game at Heinz Field, Central Valley coach Mark Lyons couldn't help but reflect on an interesting fact about his program.

"That game was only our 10th loss in four years," he said. "And it was the first time we lost to a WPIAL opponent by more than 10 points.

"That right there is a tribute to our program and what we're trying to do here."

West Allegheny beat Central Valley (11-2) twice this season, including a 13-7 conference defeat during Week 4. The Warriors entered that game with three consecutive shutout victories and followed the first West Allegheny loss with four wins in a row to finish second in the Parkway Conference.

"After that first loss to West Allegheny I really thought we had something special because of how we came back from that tough loss," Lyons said. "That was a point in the season where we knew we had to quit being just one dimensional, and we did that by playing very well offensively and on defense the rest of the way."

Outscoring opponents by an average of 33.4-7.9 this season, the Warriors cruised past Belle Vernon Area in the first round of the playoffs, before knocking off Mars Area in the quarterfinals and then No. 2 seed Thomas Jefferson in the semifinals.

"I thought as long as we stayed healthy and got a lot of different guys to contribute, we would be able to compete," Lyons said. "It was a grind through the Parkway [Conference] and the playoffs are never easy, but we were able to respond week-in and week-out.

"This group really stayed focused all year."

One injury that affected Central Valley's offense was the loss of senior quarterback Nate Climo, who sustained a season-ending injury to his non-throwing left shoulder. Climo, who missed the playoffs last season because of a neck injury, threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns in six games.

Junior John George took over at quarterback in Week 7 and actually gave the Warriors a "jump-start," throwing for 712 yards and eight touchdowns.

"For Nate Climo, it was a really disappointing way for him to end his career," Lyons said. "Twice he had his season end because of an injury.

"On the flip side, it was very encouraging to see Johnny prepare as a backup and come through and take advantage of his opportunity."

Jordan Whitehead ended up being a key target out of the backfield for the Warriors. A junior, he led the team in scoring with 20 touchdowns, caught 22 passes for 317 yards as well as rushed for 676 yards.

"Coming into the season, we figured to have him strictly as our tailback," Lyons said. "But we realized it was better to move him around, not just vertically up and down the field but also horizontally. That was another dimension we opened up and he really took on that role with open arms."

Senior JaQuan Pennington also was a dual threat out of the backfield. Pennington led Central Valley in rushing with 816 yards on 118 carries as well as catching 12 passes for 159 yards. He also scored 10 touchdowns.

Junior running back Preston Johnson chipped in with 12 touchdowns this season. He scored the Warriors' lone touchdown in the championship game on a 1-yard run.

"At the beginning of the season, I don't think too many people had us penciled in to be playing down at Heinz Field," Lyons said. "We worked relentlessly to get where we got this season.

"We had some great senior leadership and the kids really bought into working toward our goal. It's really a tribute to our players' ability to work hard as well as execute week-in and week-out."

As far as next season? Lyons believes the Warriors enter the offseason with a sturdy foundation.

"We hope to take the opportunity to reload for next season," Lyons said. "We should bring back a lot of skilled guys who are juniors. We were senior-dominated up front, but we did have a lot of underclassmen who got snaps this season.

"We make it a point here never to go into an offseason thinking about rebuilding. As long as guys put the work and time in during the offseason, the transition should be fast and we can fill those positions seamlessly."

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