WPIAL Class AAA Championship: Getting all defensive
West Allegheny's swarming defenders made things tough for opponents all season, including Central Valley star Robert Foster shown here being tackled in a September game. The Indians have allowed only 26 points in their past seven games.
West Mifflin's James Wheeler runs into the end zone for a touchdown against Thomas Jefferson Oct. 26. Wheeler has rushed for 2,144 yards this season.
West Mifflin running back James Wheeler carries the ball against Thomas Jefferson earlier this season.
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West Mifflin wanted to get the feel of what it might be like to play at Heinz Field, so the Titans moved off their stadium artificial turf and practiced on a grass field all week.
Now the Titans must go against a team that lately has defended its turf like no other team in the WPIAL.
West Mifflin (11-1) plays in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game tonight at Heinz Field against West Allegheny (11-1).
West Allegheny's defense has been superb since the start of October. Over the past seven games, West Allegheny has not allowed more than seven points in a game and only 26 points overall in those contests. No other team in the four WPIAL championship games has been so stingy defensively over the past seven games.
"I would say this defense has exceeded our expectations," West Allegheny coach Bob Palko said.
It's not that West Allegheny had a poor defense in the first part of the season, but the Indians did give up 86 points in their first five games.
Some of West Allegheny's top defensive players are tackle Dustin Windemaker, end Jordan Diven and linebackers Armand Dellovade and Zach Medved.
"What this defense has been able to do is execute game plans better than a lot of defenses we've had," Palko said. "That's a pretty good thing to do.
"I would say the thing that stands out about this defense is we gang tackle pretty well. You always see a lot of people around the ball."
West Allegheny hopes to get a lot of people around Jimmy Wheeler tonight. Wheeler is West Mifflin's speedy junior running back who has rushed for 2,144 yards on 276 attempts.
"It's not like we've never seen a good running back before, but this kid is very talented. He's fast," Palko said.
Wheeler has rushed for 100 yards in every game this season, but he is not the only West Mifflin player who can use his legs to cause defenses problems. Quarterback Derrick Fulmore doesn't throw much (six times a game), but has rushed for 910 yards on 114 carries.
Fulmore might be a bigger key to the game than Wheeler. West Mifflin's only loss was to Thomas Jefferson in the regular-season finale. In that game, Wheeler rushed for 129 yards, but Fulmore was held to 30 yards on 10 carries.
"I have a good feeling that we can move the ball," Wheeler said. "We have a strong offensive line and I think our line is tough enough to get us where we're supposed to be. But West Allegheny is a really good team, too. They're just strong on defense. They have a good front line and good outside linebackers."
West Allegheny is similar to West Mifflin in that it doesn't throw the ball much, either. Sophomore quarterback Andrew Koester averages only seven passes a game. West Allegheny will often use the wildcat formation, with direct snaps going to a running back.
West Allegheny has four running backs with at least 675 yards rushing. Chayse Dillon has 747 yards, Tory Delmonico 730, Dellovade 678 and Nick Halbedl 675.
Delmonico, though, hasn't played the past few games because of an injured knee. He is questionable for tonight.
Palko is going after his sixth WPIAL championship while West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo is trying for his first. Braszo guided two other West Mifflin teams to title games, losing to Thomas Jefferson in 2004 and, coincidentally, to West Allegheny in 2000.
The 2000 West Allegheny team was quarterbacked by Palko's son, Tyler, who was a junior at the time. Tyler went on to play at Pitt and in the NFL. A year ago, he was a quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. Nowadays, Tyler is living in the Pittsburgh area and working as a financial planner.
Palko's youngest son, Luke, also was a member of championship teams at West Allegheny. Luke is now a scout for the Arizona Cardinals, but lives in the Pittsburgh area. Both Luke and Tyler will be at the title game.
"You don't ever get used to it," Bob Palko said of the championship game appearances. "But you really don't have time to think about it, either. It's not like you sit around and say, 'Oh boy, look what we're doing.' You just do it. You work so hard at it that there's never really time to enjoy it and let it soak in."
West Allegheny's defense has been superb, allowing seven points or fewer in seven consecutive games. Linebacker Zach Medved and lineman Dustin Windemaker are two of the standouts. On offense, West Allegheny has four running backs with at least 80 carries. ... West Mifflin junior Jim Wheeler has more than 2,000 yards rushing.
Bob Palko is in his 18th season at West Allegheny and has won five WPIAL titles. ... Ray Braszo is in the third year of his second stint as West Mifflin's coach. In between, he coached at Steel Valley for four years producing an undefeated regular season in 2007. His first tenure with the Titans lasted 17 seasons, from 1989 to 2005.
West Allegheny is 5-0 in title games, all under Palko. ... Since West Mifflin North and West Mifflin South merged to form West Mifflin, the Titans have been to two championship games (2000 and 2004). The 2000 team lost to West Allegheny, a team that featured Palko's son, Tyler, at quarterback.
West Mifflin North won a WPIAL title in 1963 with a 12-6 victory against Butler in front of 20,371 at old Forbes Field in Oakland. Butler featured quarterback-defensive back Terry Hanratty, who would go on to play at Notre Dame and with the Steelers. West Mifflin North won on a Karl Tribelhorn 11-yard touchdown pass to Bill Lukses.
First Published November 23, 2012 12:00 am