HERSHEY, Pa. — West Catholic (Philadelphia)
wasn't playing South Fayette (McDonald)
on Saturday in the PIAA Class AA finals as much as the Burrs were playing against a ghost—a looming disappointment that needed to be — had to be — rectified. Poor South Fayette, undefeated or not, happened to be standing in the way.
West Catholic lost in the state finals in 2008 — a championship the Burrs felt they were destined to win. But a sloppy game resulted in West Catholic losing that chance, with a number of West Catholic seniors on this team that were sophomores then. The seniors made a pact with each other that, given another chance, they wouldn't walk off the Hershey Park Stadium field again without taking home the state title trophy.
This time, they didn't squander the chance. West Catholic demolished a very good South Fayette team, 50-14, to become the second Philadephia Catholic League team to win a state title and capture the first PIAA state in school history. The Burrs ended their season 13-2 while South Fayette fell for the first time this season, ending a successful year at 15-1.
For as much as the state title game meant something to the Burrs, it meant maybe even more to West Cathiolic coach Brian Fluck, who was also looking for some redemption as well. He blamed himself for the 2008 state title loss, feeling he didn't prepare his team enough emotionally to win.
Fluck and his seniors more than made up for it this time around.
South Fayette took the opening kickoff and drove 61 yards over 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead. That was it—West Catholic responded by scoring the next 20 points on the way to a thoroughly dominating performance that saw a few PIAA Class AA state championship game records fall, like most points scored (50) and total yards (530) in a Class AA state title game.
Fluck did a masterful job in putting a brilliant game plane together that neutralized South Fayette's senior quarterback Christian Brumbaugh, forcing the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League multiple-record holder into a rare bad day.
After Brumbaugh completed 5 of 7 for 57 yards on the Lions' opening scoring drive, he went 6 for 21 for 64 yards the rest of the game. West Catholic put a completely new defense in this week to prepare for Brumbaugh, going with a 2-5-4 alignment, designed to blitz from various points. Brumbaugh had no idea where West Catholic was coming from. It was unnerving for South Fayette and Brumbaugh, who finished completing 11 of 28 for 111 yards.
"He had no idea where we coming from and what we were doing, it was awesome," said Burrs' junior defensive tackle/center Dominic DiGalbo about the plan of attack against Brumbaugh. "You know a lot of people didn't think we could do this. People forget we started the season 1-2 and had some even doubting us about whether or not we'd even make the playoffs. But we believed in ourselves, and I think the key was staying focused and working hard. I'm happy for the seniors and Coach Fluck. This was really all for them."
West Catholic senior defensive end Jim Lynch knew what it was like walking off the field two years ago. He saw the tears on the senior's faces. He was determined, as were his senior teammates, that he wouldn't remember his last high school game that way.
"This feels so much better than two years ago," said Lynch, who led West Catholic with two sacks for minus-19 yards. "This is so much more special, knowing what we did today and how we did it. This was in our hearts to come back here and win this, for us, and for the seniors that were on the 2008 team. I liked what we did today. We had [Brumbaugh] looking all over the place. He had no idea what we were doing or where we were coming from."
Offensively, West Catholic slammed South Fayette for 406 yards rushing, spearheaded by a career day from 6-0, 180-pound sophomore David Williams, whose 183 yards rushing on 14 carries was a personal best, as was the 81-yard first-quarter touchdown run that ignited the Burrs' offense.
Brandon Holloman, West Catholic's leading rushed this season, ran for 112 yards on 12 carries, including a 16-yard touchdown. But Hollomon was used in an interesting manner in the most important game of the season—almost as a decoy.
"We knew Brandon would be getting a lot of attention, but we take turns with series," said Williams, who showed some real nifty, cutting moves for a big back. "I have to give a lot of credit to my offensive line. They all did a great job. I just followed them downfield. But I have to say the 81-yard touchdown run is something I'm going to remember forever."
The whole day will no doubt leave an indelible mark on Fluck. He revamped the West Catholic program from a dormant state and made it a state championship team. He bore the frustration of some lean years, never afraid to play anyone in the Philadelphia area, and as the West Catholic team was boarding its bus to return to Philadelphia, one of the last to board was Fluck—the state title trophy tucked under his arm and a beaming smile on his face.
"I really can't say enough about these kids, the coaching staff, the whole West Catholic community," Fluck said. "This is like a dream come true, not just for the kids, but for me, too. I blamed myself for what happened two years ago. I felt like it was my loss, for not doing more than I could have to win that game. We were lackadaisical, we took things for granted, and maybe I did a little, too. You learn from things and experiences. I think I did and I know the seniors on this team, they did, too. They were sophomores in 2008 and they saw what it was like for the seniors walking off this field after losing. They were determined it wasn't going to happen to them—and I was determined not to let that happen. That's why this is for everyone that ever put on a West Catholic uniform."Class AAAA
North Allegheny (Wexford) 21, La Salle College (Wyndmoor) 0
North Allegheny is content on doing the mundane things well. The Tigers won't dazzle you with fancy plays. In fact, they're prone to run the same play over and over again, and won't stop until the play is stopped. It's not pretty to watch, but no one ever told North Allegheny coach Art Walker he's competing for a beauty prize.
He's competing to win football games. And there was nothing more daunting than taking on the defending PIAA Class AAAA state champion La Salle Explorers Saturday night in the final game of championship weekend.
Again, the Tigers delivered on all the solvent qualities that led to reaching their first state championship game since 1990, marking the first time in 20 years they advanced out of the rugged Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League's Class AAAA bracket. The Tigers don't make mistakes. They have a stubborn defense that can shut down any offense—including the high-powered Explorers.
The slight wrinkle was the double-reverse pass that pretty much sealed the Tigers' victory. Leading 14-0 midway into the third quarter, the Tigers ran a double reverse pass on a third-and-18 play that featured sophomore Brendan Coniker hitting a wide-open Dan Slivka at the La Salle 1-yard line. The following play, North Allegheny quarterback Mike Buchert strutted into the end zone and ended any hopes of La Salle repeating as PIAA Class AAAA state champions.
The victory marks the first time the Tigers won the state crown since they defeated Ridley, 21-14, in 1990. North Allegheny ended its season at 15-1, while La Salle closed at 13-2.
"What can I say, we got our butts kicked," La Salle coach Drew Gordon said. "[North Allegheny] is a big, strong team and the best offensive line I've seen this year. They're big, physical, they moved us around."
Matt Steinbeck and Buchert combined to rush for 171 yards and all three Tigers' scores. But it was the defense that really shined for North Allegheny. The Tigers' Seth Marx, Steinbeck and Slivka intercepted passes. Two of the Explorers' five turnovers led to 14 North Allegheny points, when La Salle fumbled on its opening drive of the game, converted on Buchert's 4-yard scoring run, and Steinbeck's interception and 40-yard return led to Buchert's second score, a 1-yard run.
"We don't do anything fancy," Buchert said, "We stuck to what we've been doing all year and that's running the ball behind those big guys. We've been able to do it all year, because we have five to seven bad dudes up front that do what they want."
The shutout was the first in the Class AAAA state championship game since 2007, when Pittsburgh Central Catholic blanked Parkland, 21-0, and it marked only the second time in the 22-year history of the PIAA state playoffs when a shutout occurred in the Class AAAA title game.
"La Salle was a tough team to stop, but our general plan was to keep doing what we've been doing all year and not let any of their receivers break free down field," Marx said. "Everything with us starts up front. You have guys taking on two, three guys and that frees the rest of us up. That's where it began and this is where it ended—a state championship."Joseph Santoliquito can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.