Perennial PIAA powers clash when Jeannette, Steelton-Highspire meet for Class A title

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020 | 12:01 AM


Two of the winningest teams in the state will play for the PIAA Class A title Friday.

Steelton-Highspire, with 772 victories, according to PennLive.com and Dr. Roger Saylor’s records, and the WPIAL’s No. 1 team, Jeannette, with 766, will square off at 11 a.m. at Hersheypark Stadium.

The schools have won two PIAA titles each: Jeannette in Class A in 2017 and Class AA in ’07 and Steelton-Highspire in Class A in ’07 and ’08.

Both teams possess an explosive offense and an aggressive defense. But one of those offenses might be without its standout freshman quarterback.

Jeannette’s Brad Birch has thrown for 1,676 yards and 28 touchdowns, but he is nursing a left foot injury and is doubtful for the game. Steelton-Highspire’s Alex Erby, the coach’s son, has thrown for 2,308 yards and 31 touchdowns.

“I would have liked to see that matchup,” Steelton-Highspire coach Andrew Erby said. “But the other kid they put in is pretty good, and, in fact, even better in some aspects of his game.”

If Birch can’t go, senior Roberto Smith Jr., who played running back most of the season, will get his second start under center. Smith completed 6 of 14 passes for 278 yards against Reynolds. He has rushed for 780 yards and scored 21 touchdowns this season.

Jeannette coach Roy Hall said he was impressed by how Smith Jr. handled himself in the semifinals.

“I knew he’d handle it well,” Hall said. “Ryan (Reitz) did a good job preparing him for the game. The more time he gets in the position, the better he’ll be.”

Hall said he is hoping senior Toby Cline and sophomore Noah Sanders will be available after sitting out last week’s game. Cline is the team’s second-leading receiver, and Sanders is his backup.

“Steelton-Highspire has a lot of talented players,” Hall said. “They have a safety/wide receiver (Mehki Flowers) who has offers from Penn State and Pitt, and its freshman quarterback has talented receivers. They are athletic and have a decent-size line. We’re a mirror image of each other.”

The Steamrollers, who are averaging 37.8 points, had to rally late to defeat Old Forge (39-26) and Bishop Guilfoyle (16-14) in the playoffs. They are allowing 21 points per game.

“Jeannette’s well coached and has a lot of tradition,” Andrew Erby said. “They’ll be the best team we’ll face this season. I’d think they’d be the favorite because they’ve been there recently.

“It’s been a difficult season because of the pandemic. We weren’t able to have much of a preseason. I think we’ve overachieved.”

Erby’s son has a talented group of receivers headlined by Flowers, who has 56 catches for 940 yards. Senior Damein Hammonds has 41 catches for 677 yards.

Steelton-Highspire has a strong running game with senior Odell Greene, who transferred from neighboring Middletown after his sophomore season, leading the way with 1,485 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“Our defense will be tested again,” Hall said. “I’m sure our coaches will come up with a gameplan to slow them down.”

Jeannette’s defense forced three turnovers against Reynolds. Brett Birch picked off two passes, and sophomore Braydon Penn picked up a fumble and raced 38 yards for a score.

The Jayhawks defense and special teams have recorded 13 touchdowns this season.

“It feels good to get back there and felt great to win,” senior James Sanders said. “The journey there was great. The seniors want to bring back another title.”

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

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