West Xtra: Sto-Rox tightens up on defense
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The Sto-Rox defense went from a unit that allowed 66 points to Neshannock and Northgate in the span of 14 days in late September to a group that closed out the regular season with 12 consecutive shutout quarters.
The transformation of the defense is a big reason why the Vikings transformed themselves from a team likely headed to a road playoff game to a team that is the No. 2 seed in the 16-team Class A playoff field.
The Sto-Rox defense put an exclamation point on its regular season with a 25-0 shutout of No. 2-ranked Rochester on the road last Friday night.
It was the Rams first home loss in five years. The win meant Sto-Rox (8-1, 7-1) won a share of the Big Seven Conference title with Rochester (8-1, 7-1) and Neshannock (8-1, 7-1). By virtue of tiebreaker, Sto-Rox earned the top seed from the conference while Rochester was seeded No. 3 overall and the Lancers were seeded No. 13.
Dan Bradley, now in his second season at Sto-Rox and first year as head coach, knows that No. 13 seed could have been his team's if not for the win at Rochester.
"If we didn't win that game, we would have been on the road," Bradley said.
The team's path to Heinz Field begins Friday night when it is tentatively scheduled to play host to No. 15 Carmichaels (7-2, 6-2). The WPIAL announced at the pairings meeting Monday night that it will retain the right to schedule the game at a neutral site if they deem a school's field unplayable. Sto-Rox has a natural grass surface.
The Mighty Mikes won six in a row to finish in second place in the Tri-County South Conference.
"From what I gather, they are a power-I, smash-mouth team," Bradley said. "They like to be physical up front and their running back [junior Brennan McMinn] is their workhorse."
Sto-Rox is the No. 2 seed again this season despite graduating five senior starters who went on to play collegiate football, including Deaysean Rippy who went on to play at Pitt and Dontez Ford who is at Syracuse.
"The guys we had last year, a lot were household names, Division I recruits," Bradley said. "They had a physical presence about them standing, 6 feet 3, 6-4, they were good, but I think we are a more balanced team with the guys we have this year."
One of those guys is junior quarterback Lenny Williams, one of the top playmakers in the WPIAL. Williams has a chance to become the WPIAL all-time career passing leader by the time he graduates. In two games this year Williams surpassed 400 yards of total offense.
"He makes us tick," Bradley said. "He is always a threat to run and he is our leader on the field and in the huddle."
His top weapons on offense are senior wide receiver Ben Shackelford and junior running back Brendan Blair. Shackelford is the leading receiver on the team, leading tackler on special teams and a three-year starter at cornerback.
Blair is second on the team in receptions and he has rushed for more than 700 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. He starts at outside linebacker on defense and his 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Rochester broke the game open.
With four returning starters the offensive line has been a strong point for the Vikings. Senior tackles Yusef Chandler and Jason Rippole and junior guards Mike Riley and Jessie Rippole are returning starters on the line while sophomore Jesse Mayes moved into the center position.