Big plays expected in WPIAL Class A title game

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Thursday, November 23, 2017 | 8:36 PM


Composure.

It's a word used often in sports, a trigger word even.

Some coaches weave it into cliches. But many times they use it to help explain why their team won or how it lost.

We kept our composure.

We lost our composure.

It's all about how teams react when things get heated.

Jeannette and Imani Christian were forced to reassess their state of self-control after their Week 4 game in Wilkinsburg. The Eastern Conference contest was stopped with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left because of a volatile combination: belligerent fans, rising tension and safety concerns.

The back-and-forth flow of highlights was eventually won by Jeannette, 54-36.

Imani was reprimanded by the WPIAL for fan behavior and players leaving the sideline at Graham Field, which it uses for home games.

But the dust has long settled.

With a clean slate and a renewed sense of calm, the teams are set to meet again at noon Saturday in the WPIAL Class A championship at Robert Morris' Joe Walton Stadium.

“We're a lot better team now,” Imani senior receiver Sam Fairley said. “We're stronger, we're smarter. We learned a lot from that game. I think this time, if stuff pops off, we'll keep our cool, and none of that will happen again.”

Jeannette (12-1), finally past nemesis Clairton, will be seeking its ninth WPIAL title — its first in a decade — while Imani (11-2) goes for its first championship in its first try.

“There should be some very good referees there,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “They know what happened, and I'm sure it's going to be a tight-run game, and they're not going to put up with any nonsense. We're already telling our kids that.”

The teams combined for 341 yards worth of penalties in their early-season clash. Imani was flagged 23 times for 210 yards.

“Discipline is a huge factor,” Imani senior running back Asante Watkins said. “We really didn't have the discipline in the last game (against Jeannette), but we fixed our problems throughout the season and made adjustments. We're very well disciplined.”

The bad part about the first meeting was that so many great plays were overshadowed by the disorder.

Jeannette led 29-20 at the half and Imani cut it to 43-36 in the fourth quarter on a scoring pass from Tawan Wesley to Watkins.

• Then-Jeannette quarterback Robert Kennedy, who moved to receiver, ran for two touchdowns, and also scored via interception and punt return.

• Jeannette's Tre Cunningham caught a TD and kicked two field goals.

• Lineman Jalen Jones recovered a fumble in the end zone for a Jayhawks' score.

• Imani quarterback Wesley threw for 320 yards and three touchdowns.

• Fairley led the Saints with four catches for 171 yards and a 66-yard score.

“If we can avoid the turnovers and penalties, we should be OK,” Imani coach Ronnell Heard said. “All this week has been about composure; rise to the moment and don't let anything distract you from what you're doing.”

Imani lost to Rochester in the quarterfinals last year.

“For us to be a second-year program in the WPIAL and be in the WPIAL championship is huge for our program and school,” Heard said. “Us beating Clairton early in the season was huge. It set the tone for the rest of our season.”

The Saints are known for their Division I college prospects, particularly wideouts R.J. Hart and Fairley.

Hart has offers from Buffalo, Temple and Toledo; Fairley from Miami (Ohio), Columbia, Army and Robert Morris.

“They are a very skilled team. … They're extremely confident and ready to go,” Hall said. “They want to make a name for themselves.”

Jeannette dropped the last two WPIAL finals to Clairton. Now, it has to take down the team that had all the hype at the start of the season — albeit downplayed hype by the Saints.

“Everyone wants to see how we can play on a big stage,” Watkins said. “We feel very comfortable about it.”

Imani has been one of the most proficient big-play passing teams in the state. The Saints average 438.6 yards per game (253 passing) and are scoring 40.5 points out of their spread offense. They could end up with a 2,000-yard passer, and two 1,000-yard receivers.

Jeannette is scoring 40.8 a game, using several running backs, a wide-open passing attack and sound defense to round out games.

“Discipline is a big factor, yes. But coaches always tell us defense wins championships,” Jones said. “Defense is a big key for sure.”

Jeannette, which took down Clairton, 18-7, in the semifinals after losing 40-6 to the Bears earlier, has been sparked by a position change: Kennedy going from quarterback to receiver and Seth Howard moving from the slot to QB.

“We need to come out strong defensively and not have turnovers,” Howard said. “We are here three years in a row so we should pretty confident in this game.”

Kennedy has done a little of everything this season. He has thrown for 1,264 yards and 23 touchdowns, rushed for 978 yards and 17 scores and has five catches for 91 yards.

Both teams expect to see a lot of passing. Imani will try to slow down Kennedy. Defensive back Tevaughn Austin has nine interceptions.

Kennedy has nine interceptions, four of which he's returned for touchdowns.

“I think you're going to see better defense from both teams, but both offenses are very explosive,” Heard said. “There will be big plays from both ends.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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