5 things to watch at the PIAA football championships

Friday, November 27, 2020 | 8:54 AM

With a laugh, Cathedral Prep coach Mike Mischler brags that his defense hasn’t given up a point in weeks.

Technically, he’s right.

The District 10 champions reached the PIAA football championships on the heels of two covid-related forfeits. Wyoming Valley West forfeited their quarterfinal game and Upper Dublin forfeited the semifinal, so the Ramblers haven’t played a game since Nov. 6.

How will that 20-day layoff affect them entering a Friday night matchup with Pine-Richland? It’s hard to say until the teams meet at 8 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium.

“I think it’s whatever you want it to be,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “I’m a big fan of bye weeks. On one hand, you’re thinking, ‘Hey, this is great. We get three weeks of practice.’ I’m sure they were eyeballing us. I’m sure they picked out two teams that would make it and Mischler started preparing for them. But on the other hand, you might be thinking they’ll be rusty. They haven’t played in awhile.”

Cathedral Prep’s most recent game was a first-round victory over Hollidaysburg, 33-7, on Nov. 6.

“Sitting for three weeks getting ready to play a team as good as Pine-Richland is going to be a tough task for us,” Mischler said. “But we’re happy to be there. There are a lot of people suffering in a lot bigger ways than this, so we’re not going to complain.”

The Ramblers were so committed to competing in the state finals that they agreed to leave their team buses at home. Instead, the players traveled individually to Hershey with their family.

“We didn’t feel it was safe to have kids on a bus in an enclosed ventilation system for six straight hours,” he said.

That’s a testament to Cathedral Prep’s determination to play.

“Like the rest of the year, it’s been one change after the other,” Mischler said. “You constantly have to be ready to adapt to curveballs.”

Will Central Valley complete a “mercy rule” season?

Central Valley has built a 35-point lead over all 11 opponents this season, causing the clock to run continuously in the second half every week.

That sure seems difficult this week.

Central Valley’s opponent in the PIAA Class 3A championship, Wyomissing, has outscored teams 425-45 this season. Undefeated Wyomissing (10-0) celebrated a dominant 44-14 victory over Danville in the semifinals.

Under the mercy rule, the clock runs continuously once a team takes a 35-point lead in the second half. In 2016, Steel Valley became the first team to win every game by the mercy rule after the PIAA adopted the rule in 1998.

A week ago, Central Valley built a 36-point lead in the third quarter of a 49-20 victory over Bedford. CV’s other wins this season have been by 49, 43, 28, 50, 51, 35, 51, 49, 49 and 35 points. The Warriors allowed a late touchdown in their 28-point win.

But Central Valley surely would celebrate a state championship with or without the mercy rule, if they can. The Warriors were in position to win the PIAA title last fall but saw a late lead slip away against Wyoming.

Can Jeannette win a state title without its star freshman?

Brad Birch ranks second among all WPIAL quarterbacks with 28 touchdown passes this season, but the talented freshman injured a foot in the WPIAL finals and missed last week’s state semifinal win.

Birch isn’t expected to play Friday when Jeannette plays Steelton-Highspire in the PIAA Class A final at 11 a.m. He completed 108 of 184 passes for 1,676 yards in his first season of varsity football.

A week ago, Jeannette turned to Roberto Smith Jr., under center. The senior passed for 274 yards and a touchdown and rushed for three scores in the Jayhawks’ 48-12 win at Reynolds.

Can TJ go back-to-back?

The PIAA football playoffs have been around since 1988. In the past 32 years, only five WPIAL teams have won consecutive state titles, but Thomas Jefferson is trying to join that list for the second time.

The defending state champion Jaguars will play Jersey Shore in the PIAA Class 4A final at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. TJ defeated Dallas, 46-7, in last year’s championship.

Thomas Jefferson won consecutive PIAA Class 3A titles in 2007-08.

Clairton won four consecutive Class A state titles from 2009-12. The other WPIAL teams to go back to back were South Fayette (2013-14 in 2A), Rochester (2000-01 in A) and Farrell (1995-96 in A).

Will Wilmington end Southern Columbia’s stranglehold on 2A?

Southern Columbia is a three-time defending PIAA champion in Class 2A and owns a remarkable 59-game winning streak. The Tigers haven’t lost since Steel Valley beat them in the 2016 state finals.

For the third time in four years, Wilmington will try to end that streak, even though recent history isn’t on its side. The Greyhounds lost to Southern Columbia in both the 2017 and ’18 state finals. The scores were 48-0 and 49-14.

In 2019, Southern Columbia routed Avonworth, 74-7.

The team’s winning streak is inching closer to Clairton’s 66-game streak that stands as the state’s all-time record.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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