PIAA football playoffs: 30 years in 30 days — South Park strikes gold in ’97

By: HSSN Staff
Saturday, November 17, 2018 | 11:36 AM


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: 1997

The Site: Mansion Park in Altoona

The Champs: Central Bucks West, Berwick, South Park, Sharpsville

The Headline: South Park wins gold while USC and Perry settle for silver

The Lowdown: After hosting all four PIAA championship games starting in 1992, the six-year run for Mansion Park in Altoona as the host site of the state football finals concluded in 1997.

Two WPIAL teams and a City League neighbor took the two-hour trip east in search of a state title.

Only South Park in Class AA struck gold.

The Eagles got defensive in their showdown against previously-unbeaten District 4 champion South Williamsport.

South Park yielded only 126 total yards and six first downs against South Williamsport, but that was hardly anything new as the Eagles gave up only 93 points all season and 26 points in five postseason victories.

“Everything starts with our defense,” South Park coach Tom Loughran said after the game. “Our defense has been tremendous all year long.”

South Park scored a pair of first-half touchdowns on a 1-yard dive by Chad Morris and a 3-yard run by Brian Guzek.

Morris scored on another 1-yard run to cap the scoring in the fourth quarter as South Park won 20-0.

The Eagles used a four-man attack on the ground as they had all season with Morris, Guzek, Tita Atte and Tony Gaetano helping to move the ball and eat up clock as South Park held a 2-1 time of possession advantage over South Williamsport.

• While one school from the South Hills celebrated, another was set to play its third PIAA Class AAAA championship game in the then-10-year history of the state finals.

After winning state gold in 1989 and losing to Cumberland Valley in 1992, Upper St. Clair faced District 1 power Central Bucks West.

The undefeated Bucks ran wild on the Panthers’ plans to become the first school to win two quad-A titles. Instead it was Central Bucks West that made that claim following up on their 1991 state championship.

Upper St. Clair had no answers in trying to slow down the CBW ground attack. Panthers coach Jim Render even crowded 11 defenders in the box, but the Bucks still ran at will with a state finals rushing record of 509 yards on the ground.

The Bucks had three rushers run for more than 150 yards with halfback Scott Warden gaining 167 yards, fullback Dave Armstrong gaining 165 and quarterback Corey Potter chipping in 158.

Upper St. Clair actually had more first downs than Central Bucks West (19-17) and had the ball longer (24:12-23:48), but the Panthers could not sustain their attack as quarterback Mac McArdle connected on only 9 of 29 passes for 100 yards.

The 44-20 win for Central Bucks West would be the first of three straight state championships.

• City League power Perry earned a spot in the state finals for the second time in 10 years as the Commodores faced District 2 champion Berwick in a rematch of the 1989 Class AAA finals won by Perry, 20-8.

This time around, the Bulldogs would get the last bite on a last kick, 17-14.

Perry jumped out to a lead on a second-quarter score by Chuck Griffey on a 15-yard run that was set up by a 30-yard scramble by quarterback Rod Rutherford, who broke five tackles on the big play.

A Corey Oaks 61-yard pick-6 increased the Commodores lead to 14-0.

Before the half, Berwick cracked the scoreboard to cut the lead in half.

The score remained 14-7 when with Perry driving, Griffey was stripped of the ball and the Bulldogs recovered at their own 37-yard line.

Berwick drove 67 yards for the tying score.

After Perry went three-and-out, the Bulldogs got the ball back and with the help of a couple of Commodores penalties, lined up for a game-winning field goal, a 21-yarder from Jared Bryson that gave Berwick a fourth straight state championship and sixth overall.

That was the last time a City League team advanced to the PIAA title game.

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