Penn Hills rallies past West Allegheny for 5th WPIAL championship

Friday, November 23, 2018 | 10:27 PM

Dante Cephas and Hollis Mathis grew up playing football together in the Penn Hills community, the speedy Cephas hauling in touchdown passes from the strong-armed Mathis.

And with Penn Hills needing a spark in its bid for its first WPIAL championship since before they were born, the longtime friends flashed back to their childhood days.

Division I recruits Mathis and Cephas hooked up for a pair of long touchdown passes, and Penn Hills rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit to beat West Allegheny, 28-18, in the WPIAL Class 5A championship game Friday night at Norwin Knights Stadium to claim the school’s first title since 1995.

“It’s big, not only for everybody on the team, everybody’s hard work, but it’s big for everybody that came out and big for everybody in the community,” said Mathis, a Howard recruit who passed for 210 yards and three touchdowns. “We just wanted to do that for them because it’s been a long time since we’ve been on top. This is a historic program, and this is what we need to expect from here on out.”

With a large community contingent in the stands, and Penn Hills alumnus and Los Angeles Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald watching from the sideline, the No. 2 Indians (14-0) shook off a slow start to win their fifth WPIAL championship and deny outgoing West Allegheny coach Bob Palko another title to add to his record eight.

“Coach has been telling us to strive, strive,” said Cephas, a Kent State commit who caught three passes for 144 yards and scores of 56 and 65 yards. “We haven’t been here since 1995, so let’s make this a good game and let’s go down in history.”

For much of the first half it looked like history would side with fifth-seeded West Allegheny (10-3) and Palko. The Indians, who knocked off No. 1 Gateway in the semifinals, looked poised for a second straight upset; they stopped Penn Hills twice on downs inside the 30-yard line in the first half and took a 10-0 lead in the second quarter on Jon McArdle’s 38-yard field goal and Kam Kruze’s 13-yard touchdown strike to Drevon Baldwin.

But with under a minute remaining before halftime, Cephas beat West Allegheny’s single coverage along the sideline and pulled in a long pass from Mathis to cut Penn Hills’ deficit to 10-6 at the break.

“Huge, huge, huge, huge, huge,” Palko said of the magnitude of the play. “But again, we knew that. It wasn’t like we (didn’t know they could score) from any place on the field. They did, and it’s amazing to watch their quarterback. He’s fun to watch.”

Cephas made another big play on West Allegheny’s opening second-half possession. West Allegheny drove 74 yards on 13 plays, taking more than six minutes off the clock, and lined up for a field goal to extend its lead to seven. But Cephas blocked McArdle’s 23-yard attempt and four plays, 80 yards and 81 seconds later, Penn Hills took the lead on Smith’s 15-yard run.

“As soon as I blocked the kick, I knew we had the momentum,” Cephas said.

After a West Allegheny turnover on downs, Penn Hills quickly struck again. On third down from his 35, Mathis threw a short screen to Cephas, who broke a tackle with a stiff arm and raced 65 yards for the score.

“He’s a fantastic player, and he’s always going to be there for me,” Mathis said. “That’s why we were able to make it work. We’ve been doing that since we were 7 years old. We’ve been playing together forever. He was my first, best receiver, and we’ve been doing it for such a long time that it’s just second nature for us.”

A 12-yard pass from Mathis to Richard Martin made it 28-10, but West Allegheny didn’t fold — Kruze immediately hit Mateo Vandamia for a 54-yard touchdown, and the ensuing 2-point conversion cut Penn Hills’ lead to 10 with just under five minutes remaining. West Allegheny then recovered an onside kick in Penn Hills territory, but the defense stiffened with Armand Gustave dropping Kruze for a sack on fourth down.

The Penn Hills defense forced three turnovers on downs in the second half and sacked Kruze five times, including three by Gustave.

“We talked about it all week, if we could get them into a normal offensive scheme and out of the wildcat, we had a better chance of winning,” Penn Hills coach Jon LeDonne said. “Having their quarterback make plays on our guys, we gave up that touchdown there in the second half, but it was on a broken play that we should have had him sacked. But that’s why you’ve got to play to the whistle.”

Kruze passed for 211 yards and two touchdowns for West Allegheny, while Vandamia had 104 yards on four catches.

“What these kids did to get to the finals is truly amazing,” Palko said. “I can’t tell you. They say that the best talent doesn’t always win, the best teams do, but in this case, we were.”

Palko didn’t reminisce about his final game as West Allegheny coach — “I don’t mind going out when you play a team as talented as that,” he said.

Penn Hills moves on to the PIAA playoffs, where the Indians face District 12 champion Archbishop Wood on Nov. 30 or Dec. 1 at a site and time to be determined.

“It’s all surreal,” LeDonne said. “We’re going to celebrate tonight, and come back tomorrow and put all focus on Archbishop Wood.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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