North Catholic remembers the disappointment after loss to Derry

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 | 4:57 PM

The phrase “One More” is ingrained into the minds of coach Pat O’Shea’s North Catholic football players.

During the 2018 WPIAL Class 3A semifinals against Derry at Hempfield, North Catholic was a quarter away from earning a trip to the WPIAL finals to face Aliquippa.

“One more,” O’Shea said. “We needed one more yard, one more first down or one more point and we win the game, but Derry wouldn’t let us get it. Derry refused to quit.”

The top-five ranked teams square off again at 7 p.m. Friday night in a Class 3A Big East contest at Mars Athletic Complex. A spot atop the conference standings is on the line.

Last season, Derry rallied from a 29-8 deficit in the third quarter to stun North Catholic, 36-29, by scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter.

After Derry cut the lead to 29-28 with 2 minutes, 37 seconds left, Derry coach Tim Sweeney went for a 2-point conversion and the win. But North Catholic stopped the try.

But that did not stop Derry. Sweeney relied on his defense to get the ball back, and Justin Flack did one better: He intercepted a Zack Rocco pass and returned it Troy Polamalu-style for the winning touchdown with 1:32 left.

O’Shea said the memory remains vivid in his and his players’ minds.

North Catholic returns seven starters on offense and seven on defense from a squad that lost twice to Derry a year ago. The regular-season game ended in 27-0 Derry win.

No. 4 North Catholic (2-1, 2-0) is coming off a 35-14 nonconference loss to Central Valley, and No. 5 Derry (3-1, 2-0) has won three consecutive games after dropping the opener to Latrobe. Derry defeated Mt. Pleasant, 7-0, last week in windy conditions.

And while O’Shea is using last season’s losses as motivation, Sweeney likes to focus on the task at hand.

“Come Friday night, I don’t want any memories from last year in their heads.” Sweeney said. “That’s how you get beat: looking at last year. There are things we need to do better from this season, and there are things we need to do better from last Friday night.

“Those are things that need to be going through our head. Last year’s games have no bearing on the game this year.”

Among the returning starters for North Catholic is Rocco, a senior quarterback. The left-hander is 100 yards away from reaching 5,000 for his career.

“They maybe have the best quarterback we’ll see all season long,” Sweeney said. “I have a lot of respect for their quarterback, not only for his passing ability but for his running abilities. He’s very crafty in the pocket and has plenty of weapons like he did last year.”

Derry did a good job keeping Rocco in check in the first meeting, but he was able to cut the Derry defense in the semifinal-round game. That was, until Flack picked off two passes late to clinch the win.

“It starts up front for them,” Sweeney said. “Their offensive line is big and strong, and they know their blocking assignments. It’s going to be a tough task for our defense.”

O’Shea said he likes how his quarterback handles things as a veteran.

“I’m so proud of Zack,” O’Shea said. “He’s a competitor and leader.

“We know we’re 0-2 against Derry. The regular season and the loss in the playoffs were tough on us. Derry kept battling and is very physical. They are a blue-collar team, and we have to match their toughness or it could be a long night.”

North Catholic graduated its two tackles (Finnegan O’Shea and Alex Michalski) and top two receivers (Rashod Allen and Tyree Brown). It also lost Nakhai Hill-Green, who transferred to a prep school in Maryland.

But O’Shea is high on his returning guards, Carson Primrose and Dom Prentice. They anchor a line that will face Derry’s strong front, headed by Max Malis and Gavin Adams.

Derry’s offense revolves around senior running back Justin Huss, who rushed for 117 yards against Mt. Pleasant last week.

Sweeney expects Matt McDowell, Pryce Donovan, Mike Kelly and Amari Graham to have expanded roles. Quarterback Paul Koontz, who didn’t complete a pass last week, will have to be a bigger threat.

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

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