North Xtra: North Catholic savors first state football title

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It's been a season of indescribable emotions for Bob Ravenstahl and his Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School football team.

When the Trojans reached the WPIAL championship game with a 27-14 victory against Neshannock in the WPIAL semifinals, Ravenstahl couldn't put his thoughts into words.

"Words can't explain it," he said on the turf at Mars Area's football stadium on that chilly night on Nov. 15. The same feelings were evident after North Catholic won the WPIAL championship with a 14-0 shutout victory against Sto-Rox on Nov. 23 at Heinz Field.

After running the table in the PIAA Class A playoffs with successive victories against Tussey Mountain, 48-7, Clarion, 39-12, and this past Friday's stirring come-from-behind 15-14 overtime victory against Old Forge in the championship game, Ravenstahl said that words could not best describe the feelings he and his team were feeling.

"Words can't explain or describe [my emotions]," he said yet again. "But there is a sense of pride that comes with a well-deserved accomplishment. The kids worked their [tails] off, and they richly deserved what they attained."

When North Catholic came within one point of Old Forge at 14-13 on quarterback P.J. Fulmore's 10-yard run on the first play of the Trojans' possession in overtime, Ravenstahl consulted with Chris Lucas, and the offensive coordinator's decision rewarded Fulmore's belief that the team should attempt the 2-point conversion and go for the victory.

Fulmore had made his point plain as he raised two fingers after his touchdown run.

The team had been here before. In the Trojans' season opener on Aug. 30, North Catholic found itself within one point of Apollo-Ridge in the second overtime. In that game, running back Jerome Turner scored from a yard out and then rushed for the deciding two points in a 22-21 victory.

That victory started North Catholic on a 16-game winning streak that culminated with Friday's heart-stopping triumph.

This past Friday, Turner's 16-yard run after taking a lateral from Fulmore opened the Trojans' scoring and tied the score.

That opening-game victory also was the game where Fulmore sustained a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for four games.

This past Friday, however, Fulmore was healthy and he rewarded Ravenstahl's faith.

"I had confidence in [Lucas'] call and the kids," Ravenstahl. "[That call] was something the team expected the coaching staff to do."

Fulmore said he experienced a whirlwind of emotions as he fought for the end zone on the 2-point conversion.

"Everything was racing through my mind," he said. "All the work we'd put in during the offseason. I knew I had to get in the end zone."

Initially slowed at the 1-yard line, Fulmore pressed on and with his hands firmly grasped around the ball, he reached the end zone amid a sea of Old Forge defenders. Right after scoring, Fulmore ripped his helmet off, touching off a raucous on-field celebration.

The festivities aren't over just yet. There's a tradition after a monumental victory of a bell-ringing ceremony that takes place in Graham Court, the North Catholic gymnasium. That tradition will continue between Monday's boys junior varsity and varsity games between North Catholic and North Hills. Initial plans to ring the bell last Friday were scrapped because of the team's late arrival from Hershey.

"[Steelers president] Dan Rooney and Kevin Collbert [a 1975 graduate who is now the general manager of the Steelers] wanted to share in the experience," Ravenstahl said. "Each senior will get to ring the bell for one chime because that was the margin of victory along with any coach who wants to do so."

When the Trojans defeated Sto-Rox, each senior rang the bell 14 times, but all of the assistant coaches deferred to Ravenstahl when it came time for the coaches to "Ring The Bell." He expects that each coach will want to ring it one time.

The Trojans started seven seniors on offense, and five of them started on defense. Those two-way starters were Ryan Kirby, Ryan Long, Josh Churchin, Ronnie Meder and Jarred Fragapane. Dylan Grieco and Jimmy Bucek only played on offense. Mike Blackwell started on defense at inside linebacker.

Long, Churchin and Grieco were mainstays on the offensive line, and Ravenstahl and his staff will have plenty of work ahead trying to fill those positions next year.

But the Trojans have plenty of returning experience. Adam Sharlow, who missed the final eight weeks of the season with a knee injury, will be back as the team's quarterback.

He'll have a full backfield with Fulmore, Turner and freshman Mario Latronica all back. Those three combined to rush for 2,930 yards and scored 46 touchdowns.

Before he was injured, Sharlow rushed for 660 yards and completed 58 passes for 877 yards and eight touchdowns.

"We're definitely excited for the gentlemen who are returning," Ravenstahl said. "We had great leadership from our seniors, and we hope our younger players learned something from them."

While there's plenty of talk about the increased enrollment that Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic is likely to experience when it relocates its campus to Cranberry beginning with the next school year and a hoped-for renewal of the rivalry with PIAA Class AAAA runner-up Central Catholic, Ravenstahl is focused on the 2014 season.

"I'm expecting that we'll be in the [Class A] Eastern Conference just as we have been," he said. "We still plan to play our games at [North Park's Lt. J.C.] Stone Field. I expect that we'll be in Class A for the next two years, but we'll play wherever [the WPIAL] tells us to play."

Preparation for the 2014 season will begin soon enough. For this 2013 team, however, there remains an opportunity for the coaches and the players to savor the emotions that only a state champion can express.

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