East Xtra: Big 33 a showcase for Woodland Hills' Caprara
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Mike Caprara's unparalleled career at Woodland Hills High School will culminate on Saturday with the prestigious Big 33 Football Classic in Hershey.
Six Woodland Hills graduates -- Jason Taylor, Steve Breaston, Rob Gronkowski, Darrin Walls, Lousaka Polite, Ryan Mundy, Shawntae Spencer and Terrence Johnson -- played in the NFL last season. Breaston and Mundy both participated in the Big 33 game after their senior seasons.
But none of them did what Caprara did.
None of them were four-year starters at Woodland Hills. Wolverines coach George Novak can only think of maybe one other freshman he dared start since the inception of the program in 1987.
A hard-working, throwback linebacker, Caprara sets the Woodland Hills standard. Novak said Caprara's underrated attribute is his innate leadership. It's a trait Novak first noticed when he met Caprara in middle school.
"It's just the way I was taught with my father," Caprara said. "I always try to lead the way.
"But once I got into high school, I knew the opportunity I had there was no other way I could have. I couldn't just be a follower, I had to set my own path."
The anchor in the locker room quickly became the anchor of the defense.
Novak saw that Caprara would be in the linebacker rotation as a freshman and inserted him mid-season in the starting lineup. For the rest of his high school career, he never relinquished that starting role.
Caprara leaves Woodland Hills as the career leading tackler, a title he earned before his junior season was even over. As a senior, he added 103 tackles to his record.
A Pitt-bound linebacker, he will be joined by Woodland Hills teammate Shakim Alonzo (University of Cincinnati) as the 31st and 32nd Wolverines to play in the Big 33 game.
When he first accepted a spot in the Big 33 game, Caprara hadn't yet committed to any college football program. The invitation to join Pennsylvania's finest graduating high school players served as motivation.
"I knew that this was one step," Caprara said. "I made the Big 33, and I knew that if I do what I gotta do, my cards would play out right. Fortunately, they did."
A week after the Big 33 rosters were released in January, Caprara visited Pitt. He committed the next day, becoming the first commit of the Paul Chryst era.
Despite his impressive football resume, Caprara's 6-foot, 215-pound frame -- atypical for a linebacker -- has received some skepticism as to whether it can stand up in Division-I football.
"Everybody pops the question, 'Mike, you're only 6-foot?' That's a motivation," Caprara said. "As soon as I hear that, it's pedal to the metal because you don't know what you're about to see."
Caprara said his focus in Hershey is to be consistent, but mostly to learn from the other 32 players on the squad.
"Being in Western Pennsylvania, I learned only one way of playing linebacker," Caprara said. "I really look forward to playing with these other guys throughout the state and making plays with these guys. At the end of the day, hugging them and knowing that we represented Pennsylvania as best we could."
Pennsylvania has faced off against Ohio in the Big 33 Football Classic every year since 1993. Ohio currently holds the edge in wins, 10-9, including three consecutive wins in the rivalry match.
Last season, Ohio laid a 50-14 shellacking on Pennsylvania -- the most lopsided Big 33 game in the past two decades.
Despite the recent woes and the difficulty of getting high-profile recruits to risk injury and participate, Caprara doesn't hesitate when asked if the Big 33 is still elite.
"Without a doubt" he said. "It's all what people take into it, because I've read that in the last few years Pennsylvania's gotten its butt kicked. To be honest, because if you take it as a joke ... you're going to get the outcome of what happened last year and the year before that."
"It's definitely very prestigious," Novak said. "If you get to play in it, you're one of the top-33 players in the state. Pennsylvania's a great state, so it's an honor to be selected."
First Published June 14, 2012 12:00 am