PIAA Football Playoffs Preview: West Allegheny prepping for state's No. 1 team


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Four WPIAL champions play in the PIAA quarterfinals this weekend, and it doesn't take a high school football wizard to figure out what WPIAL team has the toughest draw.

West Allegheny (13-0) plays Erie Cathedral Prep (12-0) tonight at North Allegheny. Cathedral Prep is the defending PIAA champion, the No. 1-ranked Class AAA team in Pennsylvania and has a 27-game winning streak, the longest in the state.

Cathedral Prep hasn't played as many quality opponents as West Allegheny, but Cathedral Prep averages 52.8 points a game, has a quarterback with close to 3,000 yards passing and has not been challenged yet this season. The Ramblers have won every game by at least 23 points.

This from a team that had only a few starters back from last season. In 2012, Cathedral Prep ended West Allegheny's season when it beat the Indians, 27-13, in the quarterfinals.

"They're still a really talented team," West Allegheny coach Bob Palko said.

Due to his team's inexperience at the start of the season, Cathedral Prep coach Mike Mischler wasn't sure what to expect from his team. You could say the Ramblers have exceeded expectations this season.

"I thought we had a ton of question marks coming in," Mischler said. "When you lose the caliber of kids we lost, and the number of kids, we weren't sure where we were going to be. To be able to get kids who don't have a lot of game experience and try to get them to play at the level we're playing at now says a lot about them."

The top two players from last year's team are now at Michigan State. Running back Delton Williams has played in seven games for the Spartans and quarterback Damion Terry is being redshirted.

The player who leads Cathedral Prep's offense this year is quarterback Billy Fessler. A 6-foot-1, 170-pound senior, Fessler was the backup quarterback the past few years. He won a preseason competition for the starting job and has been terrific, completing 142 of 260 passes for 2,736 yards and 39 touchdowns.

Fessler, a left-handed thrower, has a chance to become only the third quarterback in District 10 history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season. Some Ivy League schools are starting to recruit him.

"He sat behind one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in Erie in Terry," Mischler said. "For Billy to come in, win the starting spot this year and perform like he has -- he has really been the catalyst for our offensive productivity."

Fessler spreads the ball around to a number of receivers but two of his top targets are his brother, Charles, and Felix Manus-Schell. Manus-Schell played defensive back last year and already has committed to Old Dominion. Penn State and Ohio State, among others, have showed interest in Charles Fessler, a junior.

Jake DeHart leads the team in rushing with 974 yards on 84 carries (11.6 average).

"He has legitimate 4.4 speed in the 40," Mischler said.

On defense, safety Marlon Tyree has committed to Bowling Green.

Despite Cathedral Prep's impressive resume, Mischler is a little worried about one thing: The lack of adversity his team has faced.

"The question is: Can we play a full game?" Mischler said. "We haven't had to do that all year."

A number of West Allegheny's skill-position players also were starters in last year's game.

"I think this quarterback [Andrew Koester] can throw it pretty well and Chayse Dillon is a year older. He's a heckuva running back," Mischler said. "I'm not sure their line is as large as they were last year, but they come off the ball hard and they are tough, extremely well-coached kids."

The WPIAL hasn't had a team advance to the PIAA Class AAA title game since Thomas Jefferson in 2008.

McDowell vs. Central Catholic

In the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals, WPIAL champ Central Catholic (13-0) plays McDowell (7-5) Saturday afternoon in Erie.

McDowell's record isn't overly impressive, but four of the losses were to teams in Ohio that are usually strong. McDowell lost to Mentor, 44-30, Cleveland St. Ignatius, 49-10, Lakewood St. Edward, 56-7, and Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, 34-14. McDowell also lost to Cathedral Prep, 45-17.

McDowell uses a wing-T offense that is heavy on running and balance. Six players have at least 35 carries.

McDowell advanced to the quarterfinals with a 16-10 victory against Mifflin County of District 6. McDowell got a 36-yard field goal from Ethan Starks with 11 seconds left to send the game into overtime, and then won on Tyler Hammond's 4-yard run.

McDowell is no stranger to playing WPIAL teams. The Trojans lost to North Allegheny, 56-6, in last year's quarterfinals. Also, McDowell played a WPIAL schedule from 2006-11, but went back to District 10 last year.

There are no Class AAAA teams for McDowell to play in District 10. That's why the Trojans play so many teams in Ohio.

McDowell has asked the WPIAL for admission to the league once again, starting next year. But the WPIAL likely will not make a decision on whether to allow McDowell back in until some time next month.

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