Offense steps to forefront when Central Catholic, North Allegheny meet again for Class 6A title

Friday, November 17, 2023 | 2:12 PM

The traditional style of a Central Catholic vs. North Allegheny game was always defined by the defenses. Just a year ago, they combined for a 7-3 score in a field-position battle.

But that’s not necessarily the case anymore, since both offenses now rank among the highest scoring in the WPIAL. They combined for 72 points when they met in Week 4, so when they meet again Saturday in the WPIAL finals, it’ll probably take more than a touchdown or two to win.

No. 1 Central Catholic (10-1) and No. 2 North Allegheny (10-1) meet in the Class 6A championship game at 6 p.m. Saturday at Norwin.

“Both teams average more than 40 points, and they scored 50 against us when we played them,” NA coach Art Walker said. “It’s a little bit of a different dynamic than what history has proven with the two teams. But things change from year to year, with players and coaches and all of that stuff.”

North Allegheny is scoring 46.3 points per game, and Central Catholic averages 45.3. Both were averaging in the 20s a year ago.

One reason for Central Catholic’s offensive output is related to coaching. The Vikings in January hired an offensive-minded head coach in Ryan Lehmeier, who won WPIAL titles as a Pine-Richland assistant.

Lehmeier is trying to accomplish a rarity in the WPIAL by winning a football title in Year 1 as a first-time head coach. Since 2000, only five coaches have accomplished that feat: Union’s Kim Niedbala, Aliquippa’s Mike Warfield, Quaker Valley’s Jerry Veshio, Clairton’s Wayne Wade and Rochester’s Gene Matsook.

Central Catholic won 50-22 when these teams met Sept. 22. For the Vikings, there was a lot to like that night.

“I liked the score,” Lehmeier said with a laugh. “We did some things well and so did they. It’s going to boil down to the same thing: Making plays at big moments. I’m sure they’re doing a really good job getting prepared for this game and we’re doing the same.”

The success for both offenses starts behind center, where each has a multi-year starter at quarterback.

Central Catholic senior Payton Wehner has thrown for 2,660 yards and 33 touchdowns. North Allegheny senior Logan Kushner has passed for 1,308 yards and 18 touchdowns, while also rushing for a team-best 880 yards.

But neither is a one-man offense.

Central Catholic wide receiver Peter Gonzalez, a Penn State recruit, has 928 yards and 12 touchdowns on 40 catches, while running back Elijah Faulkner has 1,350 rushing yards and 17 TDs.

North Allegheny running back Tyree Alualu has a team-best 15 touchdowns, and receiver Khiryn Boyd has 22 catches despite missing time to injury. Kusher also has scored 14 times.

Walker said his team is scoring more points this season largely because it has the players to do so.

“It definitely has to do with our personnel, and how your philosophy in high school football needs to change with your personnel,” Walker said. “We have a three-year starter at quarterback, (Boyd) back, some depth at running back. All of those things come into play.”

Combined, North Allegheny and Central Catholic have won 13 WPIAL titles. Walker himself has won almost half of those, with four at North Allegheny and two previously at Central Catholic.

This season’s championship is a rematch from a year ago, when North Allegheny won 35-21 in the WPIAL finals. They also met in a 2020 final won by Central Catholic, 38-24. So, this rivalry wasn’t all about defense.

Remarkably, this is Central Catholic’s 10th appearance in the WPIAL finals in an 11-year span. The Vikings won five of those titles, but this year’s senior class is coming off consecutive runner-up finishes. Those near-misses aren’t something the new coaching staff thinks about, Lehmeier said.

“We’re really focused on our team this year, guys who are here now and what makes up our locker room,” he said. “We haven’t really spoken of past years. … The kids have done a tremendous job of being present and in the moment.”

In their regular-season game this season, North Allegheny scored the first touchdown but Central Catholic pulled away and led 36-15 by the third quarter. Faulkner, a junior, had four rushing touchdowns that day.

If there is a silver lining to that Week 4 loss for North Allegheny, it’s that the game was almost two months ago. The Tigers have won six in a row since.

“It would be a lot different if (the loss) was Week 9,” Walker said. “It was early. There were still some things we were figuring out. We had eight weeks to improve, but it’s not like those eight weeks were spent thinking about them.

“It was about, ‘What do we need to improve?’”

Both teams reached the finals with strong wins a week ago. Central Catholic defeated Mt. Lebanon, 42-7. North Allegheny topped Canon-McMillan, 49-7.

The offenses were outstanding again, but neither team has abandoned its defense. North Allegheny is allowing 16 points per game, and teams are averaging only 13.2 against Central Catholic.

So, while there is a good chance for a high-scoring game Saturday, neither team would reject a 7-3 win, either.

“Or even 2-0,” Walker said with a laugh. “If you come out on the winning end in a game like this, you’re going to be happy regardless.”

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

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