North Allegheny, Central Catholic are familiar rivals, but this No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash has different feel

Friday, September 22, 2023 | 2:37 PM

North Allegheny’s practices were noticeably faster this week, said coach Art Walker, but the Tigers weren’t getting off the field any earlier. It’s just that the defense was working at a quicker pace.

“We practice for the team that we’re playing,” Walker said. “I’ve been here 19 years now, and Doug Brinkley has been the defensive coordinator for 18 of them. He does a tremendous job in preparing the defense on what they’re going to see and how they’re going to see it.”

Top-ranked North Allegheny (4-0, 1-0) hosts a familiar rival Friday night when No. 2 Central Catholic (4-0, 1-0) visits Newman Stadium. The teams met twice last season, including in a WPIAL final won by North Allegheny, 35-21.

However, there are some obvious changes, since Central Catholic hired a new coaching staff in January. Former Pine-Richland and Seneca Valley offensive coordinator Ryan Lehmeier is now the Vikings’ head coach, and they’re averaging a WPIAL-best 50 points per game.

They averaged 23 last year.

“There are a lot of familiar faces (on Central Catholic),” Walker said. “Some really good guys up front, on the perimeter, in the backfield, at linebacker, all that, but when you have new coaches, you have new philosophies.

“We know that they’re a big up-tempo team,” he added. “We have to be prepared and ready for that.”

Central Catholic has scored 43, 47, 62 and 49 points in four games. They’re coming off a 49-0 win over conference foe Mt. Lebanon, in which Vikings quarterback Payton Wehner passed for two touchdowns and ran for another. Running back Elijah Faulkner also scored three times, and Penn State-bound wideout Peter Gonzalez caught a touchdown.

“We play at the pace that we think is the most opportunistic,” Lehmeier said. “Whether we’re slowing down and getting in a huddle or going fast, it’s all predicated on that opponent.”

North Allegheny defeated Central Catholic, 7-3, in a low-scoring defensive battle when they met in Week 4 last year.

That seems unlikely this time.

While North Allegheny’s defense is allowing only 7.5 points per game this season, the Tigers have the WPIAL’s second-highest scoring offense at 48.8. They’re coming off a 67-20 win over Baldwin.

So, watching last year’s film might not help either team too much.

“We’re worried about this year’s team and the game against them this year,” Lehmeier said. “We haven’t focused too much on last year. They’ve got a good program, and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Walker said Central Catholic’s offensive pace is one of the biggest differences he sees on film. Up-tempo offenses are popular nowadays, but they don’t all operate the same way.

“There are so many different types,” Walker said. “There’s as fast as you can go, and then some teams start and stop it. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to get, so you’ve got to prepare for all of it.”

The strength of North Allegheny’s defense could be its front four, with linemen Daniel Sellers, Cameron Chmura, Jack Yatchenko and Aidan Buggey. Chmura is a Marshall recruit, and Sellers is committed to Richmond.

An up-tempo attack will test the fitness of defensive linemen, but there’s a mental challenge for the players behind them, Walker said. When facing a hurry-up offense, the linebackers and defensive backs have less time to make adjustments.

“Those guys have a lot to recognize, too, other than getting back and making sure they’re where they need to be,” Walker said. “That’s why I give to Doug and our defensive guys so much credit for how they prepare our kids. They try to put them in the best situation than can Friday nights.”

What both teams have is experience.

Each returned a large number of multi-year starters, including NA quarterback Logan Kushner, top linebacker Tyree Alualu and two-way standout Khiryn Boyd.

“We’ve been in big games,” Walker said. “These guys are seniors now, and this is going to be the biggest game to date for us this year. We have to be physically and mentally prepared.”

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

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