WPIAL Class AAAA Championship: It's history in the making
Woodland Hills quarterback Cody McClelland leads an unheralded Wolverines team that has knocked off higher-ranked Gateway and Upper St. Clair en route to Heinz Field.
North Allegheny quarterback Mack Leftwich, one of the top passers in the WPIAL, has thrown for 2,411 yards with 32 touchdowns this season.
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One way or another, regardless of whether North Allegheny or Woodland Hills triumphantly walks off the turf at Heinz Field, history will be made in Friday's WPIAL Class AAAA championship game, a contest that was already getting its share of hype.
If the No. 1 Tigers (12-0) continue their dominant run through the 2012 season and turn the game into a coronation, it will give them their third consecutive Class AAAA title, which would be the first "three-peat" in Class AAAA history (which was formed in 1980). But if there's an upset and the Wolverines (10-2) find a way to pull out a win, they would become the first Class AAAA program to have won six championships.
The game's numerous implications are far from lost on fans, but what about those actually taking the field Friday?
"I've never really thought about it," North Allegheny coach Art Walker said.
Perhaps for Walker and his team, there is little reason to overthink success because they have become so accustomed to it over the past several years. Since the start of the 2010 season, North Allegheny has gone 41-2, a span that has seen it win two WPIAL titles and a PIAA championship. This season has maybe been its most prolific, as no team has come within single digits of the Tigers.
For Walker and his team, things have only been getting better of late. In its past five games, North Allegheny has scored no fewer than 42 points, including a 47-point effort in its semifinal win against a Seneca Valley team that hadn't given up more than 26 points to any team not named North Allegheny this season.
Last week's victory produced a career passing day from quarterback Mack Leftwich, who racked up 439 yards of offense and seven touchdowns. Wide receiver Elijah Zeise exemplified the Tigers' big-play potential with a career-high 127 yards on two catches, both of which went for touchdowns.
Complementing that attack is a defense that gave up a little more than four points per game during the regular season. In all, it's one of the most balanced teams in the state, a challenge for which the Wolverines will have to plan accordingly.
"Every team has something where you say, 'Wow, they're really good here,' but North Allegheny's good at everything," Woodland Hills coach George Novak said.
The odds for Woodland Hills may seem daunting, but this is a Wolverines team that has thrived in an underdog role in the playoffs, dispatching favored Gateway and Upper St. Clair squads in consecutive weeks.
While they don't sport an unblemished record like North Allegheny, few teams have been playing better football over the past two months than the Wolverines, who have won seven consecutive games dating back to Sept. 28.
Woodland Hills has a solid corps of running backs, with four players rushing for 200 yards or more. Freshman Miles Sanders leads that group with 641 yards, but he missed last week's game with a neck injury.
Complementing, and in some cases surpassing, that is quarterback Cody McClelland, who has thrown for 1,640 yards, 20 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Walker noted that this Wolverines team is "more balanced than a traditional Woodland Hills team," but for Novak, this is just a team that's continually found a way to get the job done this season, even if it has been overmatched.
"We don't have any superstars," Novak said. "The team's just playing well as a team, playing good together. That's our biggest strength right now -- team chemistry, playing together and helping each other out."
Today's game marks the first meeting between the two teams since North Allegheny's 21-14 victory in the Class AAAA title game in 2010. That Tigers team went on to win the PIAA championship.
With the setting the same and the stakes just as high, the two teams will again take the field, with both coaches knowing that their teams cannot let the moment get the better of them, regardless of how big it may feel.
"When we get there, the [field] dimensions are going to be the same as anywhere we've played all year," Walker said. "It's great playing at Heinz Field, but you can't be awe-struck."
North Allegheny quarterback Mack Leftwich has 6,008 yards offense in two seasons. He has 4,634 passing and 1,374 rushing. North Allegheny lineman Pat Kugler is a University of Michigan recruit. ... Woodland Hills' Jawan Turner has been a standout as a defensive lineman while quarterback Cody McClelland has thrown for 1,640 yards and 20 TDs.
Art Walker is in his seventh year at North Allegheny after spending seven seasons at Central Catholic. He has four WPIAL titles -- two at each school. ... Woodland Hills' George Novak is in his 26th season at Woodland Hills and is trying to become only the second coach in WPIAL history to win seven titles (he has five at Woodland Hills and one at Steel Valley).
This is Woodland Hills' ninth championship game appearance and the eighth for North Allegheny. Woodland Hills has five WPIAL titles and North Allegheny three.
Woodland Hills' first WPIAL championship came in 1996 when, coincidentally, the Wolverines defeated North Allegheny, 22-15, at Three Rivers Stadium. Woodland Hills was led by smallish running backs Eric Walker and Fon Nanji, who were affectionately called the "Smurf Backfield" by Novak. Walker ran for 176 yards against North Allegheny.
First Published November 23, 2012 12:00 am