9th-seeded OLSH knocks off conference rival Rochester in Class A semifinals

Friday, November 19, 2021 | 11:31 PM

For Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a one-point victory goes a long way when you get this far.

The Chargers are headed all the way to Heinz Field next week to play in the WPIAL Class A championship game for the second time in four years after edging Rochester, 14-13, in the semifinals Friday night.

Another OLSH victory would give coach Dan Bradley a 2-2 record in WPIAL championship games. He led the Chargers to one victory in 2018 — coincidentally, against Rochester — and lost twice previously while at Sto-Rox.

Nehemiah Azeem rushed for one touchdown and passed for another and Stephen Greer bowled his way through Rochester’s defense for 99 yards rushing to lead No. 9 OLSH past the fifth-seeded Rams in the semifinals at North Hills’ Martorelli Stadium.

OLSH (9-3) will meet No. 3 Bishop Canevin (12-1) in the title game at 2 p.m. Friday at Heinz Field.

“We had a little incentive going tonight,” said Greer, a 5-foot-9, 240-pound senior, who carried much of the offensive load for OLSH (9-3) by lugging the ball — and Rochester’s defenders — 18 times. “We aren’t done yet.”

Azeem added 63 yards rushing on 15 carries for OLSH, whose 2018 victory is its only WPIAL championship in 12 seasons since the school began playing football.

“We’ve been talking about this all year that at least in our conference, we’ve got a lot of good teams,” Bradley said.

The Chargers, indeed, were playing one of them in the semifinals.

“(Rochester coach) Gene Matsook is one heck of a coach,” Bradley said. “He’s got a great program and a great team this year. We were fortunate enough to come out on top this time.”

Six weeks ago, OLSH suffered a decisive 34-7 loss to Rochester (9-3) at home on Oct. 2 in a Big Seven Conference game.

It didn’t matter much to Matsook when the teams lined up for their latest encounter.

“When you get to the semifinals, you’re doing well,” he said. “We wanted to win the title, there’s no doubt about it. But you know what? Sometimes, things happen. Tonight we just didn’t capitalize.

“This is a game, when you get to the semis, it’s going to be a nip-and-tucker. When you play a team twice, it’s going to be a nip-and-tucker. And we knew that coming in that it was going to be that way. My hat’s off to them.”

Leading 14-13, OLSH held off Rochester in the closing minutes when Zion McIntosh intercepted JD Azulay’s pass at the OLSH 10. When Rochester was called for a penalty in between using its final timeouts, OLSH was able to retain possession and run out the clock.

Moments earlier, McIntosh made another stellar defensive play, batting down a pass by running back Sal Laure, who took a pitch from Azulay and fired a strike intended for Ryan Clark.

“The last four games, we’ve played to our potential,” Bradley said. “Guys are having fun, getting dirty, and that’s the reason for our turnaround. Even though we were winning games early, we weren’t winning the right way. Guys had a nice talk among themselves, figured out it’s now or never, and it’s been now for the last four weeks.”

Rochester pulled within 14-13 on Denny Robinson’s 2-yard touchdown run with 7 minutes, 6 seconds left in the third quarter. But the Rams still trailed by a point when Laure, who is a rare conventional, straight-on kicker, sliced an extra-point try to the right.

“That game could have gone either way,” Matsook said. “We made a couple of mistakes at the wrong time, but our kids fought for four quarters. It stinks when you have goals as high as our kids do. It’s going to stink, but I hope they realize what a great year they had. They never quit all year. They’re a great bunch of kids.”

In an intriguing first half, OLSH scored twice around a Rochester TD.

Azeem’s 5-yard keeper around the right side with 6:45 left in the first quarter gave the Chargers a 7-0 lead, but it didn’t come without controversy.

OLSH punter Jeremy Ciaramella couldn’t reach a high snap and chased down the ball before managing to get off a low line-drive punt that officials ruled was tipped by a Rochester player.

The ball was scooped up at the 45 by OLSH’s Greer and advanced into Rochester territory.

After a lengthy delay, OLSH retained possession and eventually cashed in on Azeem’s touchdown run.

After Azulay’s 1-yard touchdown run for Rochester on the first play of the second quarter knotted the score at 7-7, Azeem, under heavy pressure and on the run, fired a 26-yard touchdown pass to Dereon Greer on third down near the right pylon, giving back the lead to OLSH, 14-7, with just 15 seconds left before halftime.

Azeem completed 5 of 12 passes for 83 yards, including three completions to Dereon Greer for 62 yards for OLSH.

Laure led Rochester with 92 yards rushing on 18 carries.

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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