PIAA football playoffs: 30 years in 30 days — Rochester, Washington, West A win ’01 titles
By: Don Rebel
Tuesday, December 4, 2018 | 8:24 PM
The PIAA had been hosting state playoffs in all but one fall high school sport since 1976. Soccer, volleyball, tennis, golf, cross country and field hockey all crowned state champions once the district playoffs concluded.
The lone exception to the fall state playoff slate was high school football.
It wasn’t until 1988 when PIAA officials finally pulled the trigger on the idea of having a yearly state football playoff.
From George Novak and Woodland Hills losing in a mud pit to Bob Palko and West Allegheny finding the third time really was the charm to Neil Walker and Pine-Richland competing in a heartbreaking overtime loss in a snowstorm and to Tyler Boyd and the golden Bears of Clairton winning four straight state championships.
There have been a lot of thrills and heartbreak in three decades of state championship football. Leading up to the 2018 state finals, the TribLIVE High School Sports Network will look back at how WPIAL teams have fared in the PIAA championships with 30 years in 30 days.
The Year: 2001
The Site: Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey
The Champs: Neshaminy, West Allegheny, Washington, Rochester
The Headline: Near sweep for WPIAL as Rochester, Washington, West Allegheny win, but Woody High falls in the mud
The Lowdown: Prior to the 2016 expansion to six classifications, the WPIAL sent all four if its champions to the finals, with three of them bringing home gold three separate times. The other two times — in 2005 and 2007 — the Class A representative from the WPIAL lost the first game of championship weekend.
The closest District 7 came to sweeping state gold was in 2001.
The weekend started with a bang and a blank.
In the Class A championship game, Rochester and Southern Columbia continued their rivalry for a second straight year, meeting for the third of what would be five title game clashes between 1998 and 2004.
Rochester finished third in the Big 7 Conference after losses to Farrell and rival Monaca. While they didn’t even host a playoff game, they got hot in the postseason and beat South Fayette, Monessen, Farrell and Fort Cherry to win a second straight WPIAL crown.
Then, after beating Bishop Carroll in the state semifinals, the Rams faced a Tigers team they beat 22-14 in the 2000 state finals.
Rochester struck early with what would be the game-winning points when Javonn Bradley returned an interception 52 yards for a score on the fifth play of the game.
The score remained 6-0 Rochester into the second half when Bradley booted a 22-yard field goal to make it a two- score game.
The icing on the golden cake was set up by a Jermaine Moye 67-yard run early in the fourth quarter. Four plays later, quarterback Adam Moore hit Eric Beauford on a 6-yard scoring pass for the final score in a 16-0 shutout.
The Rochester defense held Southern Columbia to 94 yards on the ground and 173 yards total on offense. This from a Tigers team that averaged over 300 yards rushing per game and scored on average over 40 points per game and had never scored less than 22 points all year.
Rochester became the first WPIAL team to win three PIAA football championships.
• Speaking of familiar foes, the Class AAA championship game marked the third straight year West Allegheny and Strath Haven were dance partners in the big game with the Panthers having won the previous two meetings 21-7 in 1999 and 31-28 in 2000.
This championship game started similar to the earlier Class A game.
West Allegheny linebacker Mike Craig picked off a pass and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown on the sixth play of the game.
On the Indians’ third possession, one that started at the Strath Haven 33-yard line, the Indians capped the drive with an 13-yard scoring strike from quarterback Tyler Palko to wide receiver Joe Slappy for a 14-0 lead.
Strath Haven came right back and scored to cut the lead in half, but West Allegheny answered with a 13-play, 65-yard drive that ended with a Dave Hawkins 2-yard run with 3:42 left in the second quarter.
The Indians put it away on the first drive of the third quarter when they again marched 65 yards, this time on 11 plays, fueled by several Palko third-down conversion passes. Dionte Henry scored on a 4-yard run.
The Panthers scored with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter in what would be a 28-14 victory for the Indians.
Palko, a Pitt recruit and future NFL quarterback hit on 14 of 20 passes for 202 yards with a touchdown pass, and he had an interception on defense from his safety position.
“I don’t know if it gets any better than this,” a jubilant Palko said after the game. “Maybe winning a national championship in college, but it’s nice to go out in style.”
• Washington closed out the 2001 season in grand style with a perfect 15-0 record after knocking off District 11 champion Pen Argyl, 19-12, in the Class AA title game.
After Pen Argyl grabbed an early 6-0 lead, Washington tied it in the second quarter when Brian Cherry scored on a 1-yard run to tie the game at 6-6.
Before the quarter end, the Green Knights regained the lead and took a 12-6 lead into the half, only the second time the Little Prexies trailed at halftime all season.
With rain falling and field conditions getting worse, Washington coach Guy Montecalvo tried to fire up his team in the locker room and told them this was his final game and that he was retiring.
The little white lie appeared to work as the Little Prexies came out in the second half with renewed passion.
On the second play of the third quarter, Anthony Trapuzzano recovered a Green Knights fumble at the Pen Argyl 26.
Four plays later, the game was tied at 12 after Travis Thomas scored on a 5-yard run.
Washington fullback J.R. Ward scored the game-winning points on a 1-yard run with 6:33 left in the game.
Ward rushed for 92 yards, 72 coming in a second half dominated by Washington.
Pen Argyl was held to four first downs and 29 total yards in the second half. The Green Knights turned the ball over six times in the third and fourth quarters with four interceptions and two fumbles lost.
• That set the stage for a WPIAL sweep. However, the math was working against Woodland Hills and District 7.
Four title games in 48 hours plus steady rain plus natural grass in December equals mud. Andy everybody knows mud and speed just don’t click.
The Wolverines were ranked No. 7 in the nation by USA Today and were expected to have the best chance of winning state gold from the four WPIAL teams playing in Hershey.
It didn’t help Woodland Hills that quarterback Steve Breaston injured his ankle in the second quarter. He left the game, came back in the third quarter and left again for good early in the fourth quarter. Breaston rushed for nearly 1,700 yards in 2001 but was limited to 76 yards on 16 carries against the Redskins.
Before he was injured, Breaston led the Wolverines on a seven-play, 60-yard drive and capped it off with a 1-yard scoring run early in the second quarter that gave the Wolverines a 7-6 lead that they carried into halftime.
It looked like Woodland Hills had added to its lead in the third quarter, but a Kareem Dutrieuille 10-yard touchdown run was wiped away by an illegal shift penalty.
The Wolverines turned the ball over on downs, and Neshaminy began a long scoring march that ended with a Jamar Brittingham 4-yard run.
Brittingham scored again in the fourth quarter on a 45-yard touchdown run one play after Wolverines reserve quarterback Tony Carr was intercepted. Brittingham churned out 157 yards on 30 carries in the mud for the Redskins’ only state championship, 21-7.
Dutrieuille gained 86 yards on 20 carries for the Wolverines to finish the season with 1,640 yards.
Woodland Hills made it back to the state title game in 2002 only to fall 34-12 to Parkland, leaving the great George Novak 0-3 in PIAA finals in his illustrious career.
Don Rebel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Don at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TheDonRebel.