5 things to watch for Week 3 of high school football: Key matchups in Class A
By: Chris Harlan
Thursday, September 13, 2018 | 9:12 PM
A year ago, four conference wins were enough to clinch a WPIAL playoff spot in Class A.
Not so this year.
The WPIAL shrunk the playoff field for the small-school classification from 16 teams to eight, so reaching the postseason will be harder this fall. It’s only Week 3, but this new format already has coaches considering their path to the playoffs.
“It makes it feel like college football a little bit, where every game counts,” Sto-Rox coach LaRoi Johnson said. “You can’t afford to make that stumble.”
The Big Seven race will start to take shape Friday when Sto-Rox (1-1) hosts Cornell (1-0), and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (2-0) visits Rochester (1-0) in key conference matchups.
To reach the playoffs, it’s likely that Class A teams will need at least five conference wins.
“It sort of goes back to how it was years ago,” OLSH coach Dan Bradley said. “In our conference specifically, we have more than two or three good teams. A lot of good teams are going to be left out.”
WPIAL Class A has three conferences: Big Seven, Eastern and Tri-County South. Only the top two teams from each conference are guaranteed a playoff spot. Gardner Points and margin-of-victory tiebreakers will decide the final two spots in the eight-team field.
Those wildcard teams must come from two different conferences, so all fourth-place teams are automatically eliminated.
In the powerful Eastern Conference, Jeannette (2-0), Clairton (1-0), Imani Christian (1-1) and Greensburg Central Catholic (1-1) are off to winning starts, but at most, three can make the playoffs.
“When you look at the past, taking nothing away from anybody else, the best teams in single-A are all in the same conference,” said Jeannette coach Roy Hall, whose Jayhawks claimed an early-season edge with last week’s win against Imani Christian.
Two Eastern Conference teams have met in the WPIAL Class A finals each of the last three seasons.
“It is what it is,” Hall added, “but we could have somebody from our conference who’s better than the other third-place teams on the outside.”
One or two losses won’t doom a team’s chances, but a losing streak certainly could.
“You’ve got to make sure you bounce back,” Johnson said. “If you plan on being a playoff contender, you’ve got to look down the line and know where you’ve got to get your wins and where you can’t afford to take your losses.”
2. Maintaining momentum
Beaver Falls experienced a resurgence this fall, joining a list of WPIAL teams who have bounced back from tough 2017 seasons. The Tigers, who went 1-8 last year, are off to a 3-0 start.
“Last year just seemed to be one of those years where we hit a string of bad luck,” said second-year coach Nick Nardone, who appeared Wednesday on This Week in the WPIAL on TribLive HSSN. “Between kids leaving and transferring, kids getting hurt, to go along with basically 10 new starters on both sides of the ball, we took our lumps for sure. But, obviously, this year with the experience we have coming back — and the experience me and my staff have — we’ve gotten off to a great start.”
Beaver Falls is coming off a 41-7 victory at Central Valley.
In the next two weeks, Nardone will learn much about his team’s playoff hopes. Beaver Falls hosts defending state champion Quaker Valley on Friday, and next week welcomes top-ranked Aliquippa.
“We’ve gotten them into the mindset and told our kids every week is a playoff game,” Nardone said.
Blackhawk (3-0), Cornell (2-0), Freedom (3-0) and South Side Beaver (3-0) also are undefeated after posting losing records last year. Cornell went 1-8 a year ago, Blackhawk was 2-7 and South Side Beaver was 3-7. Freedom (5-6 last season) is chasing its first winning season since 2004.
3. A quarterback quandary
Steel Valley, the new top-ranked team in Class 2A, must face one of the WPIAL’s top quarterbacks for the second week in a row.
Last week, the challenge was Avonworth’s Derek Johncour, who passed for 436 yards in a 31-24 loss to the Ironmen. This week, Steel Valley faces Shady Side Academy’s Skyy Moore, a dual-threat quarterback who passed for 180 yards and rushed for 126 against Valley.
Steel Valley, which moved to No. 1 in the Trib rankings this week, is already the third top-ranked team this season in Class 2A after Washington and Riverside lost in consecutive weeks.
4. Climbing the ladder
The 7,000-yard passers club remains an exclusive list in the WPIAL, but OLSH senior Tyler Bradley has a good chance to join. First, he’ll tackle 6,000.
Bradley needs 244 yards Friday to reach 6,000 yards, a remarkable milestone itself, leaving him at least six more games to earn the other 1,000. He is averaging 217 yards per game this season.
Only seven WPIAL quarterbacks have reached 7,000 career yards.
Atop the WPIAL’s passer list are South Fayette’s Brett Brumbaugh (11,086 yards), Gateway’s Brady Walker (8,816), Sto-Rox’s Lenny Williams (8,508), Pine-Richland’s Phil Jurkovec (8,202) and Ben DiNucci (7,619) and South Fayette’s Drew Saxton (7,452) and Christian Brumbaugh (7,162).
Walker, Jurkovec and Saxton reached 7,000 last season.
5. Rainy day plans
Two games were moved to stadiums with artificial turf after heavy rains left grass surfaces unplayable.
Mapletown and West Greene will play at 7 p.m. Saturday at Waynesburg High School. Imani Christian and Valley will meet at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Wolvarena.
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.