Program-boosting coaches lead North Allegheny, Central Catholic into WPIAL Class 6A title game

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Friday, November 18, 2022 | 1:13 AM


Whether he deserves some credit or blame depends on your perspective, but Art Walker certainly helped set Central Catholic on a path to become a WPIAL powerhouse.

As a 27-year-old first-time head coach, Walker was hired there before the 1998 season to take over a team that had never won a WPIAL title. In his seven seasons there, the Vikings won the WPIAL twice and added a state championship.

That’s all ancient history, he says now.

“I’ve been here 18 years,” said Walker, North Allegheny’s coach since 2005. “A lot of people and players down at Central don’t even know that I was there. Those guys have done a great job ever since I left.”

Central Catholic (7-4) and North Allegheny (10-1) will meet Saturday night in the WPIAL finals for the second time in three years. The Class 6A championship game is 6 p.m. at Norwin.

Nowadays, Walker is trying to find ways to neutralize a Central Catholic program that’s become one of the WPIAL’s most dominant. Remarkably, the Vikings are headed to the WPIAL finals for the ninth time in 10 years.

They own eight titles, all since 2003.

“We’re not surprised that they’re in it,” said Walker, who saw assistant Terry Totten take over the program when he left for NA. “Terry has been there the whole time. He’s done a tremendous job over the years. We know they’re good and we know they have a lot of talent.”

Yet, North Allegheny is no underdog.

The Tigers are the No. 1 seed after going undefeated in Class 6A behind a defense that allowed only 11 points per game. They defeated Central Catholic, 7-3, in a field-position battle Sept. 23 when NA quarterback Logan Kushner scored the only touchdown on a 7-yard run in the fourth quarter. Central Catholic’s points came on a 30-yard field goal by Billy Lech in the third.

Neither team was flawless that day.

North Allegheny lost a fumble. Central Catholic lost a fumble and threw an interception. They combined for 13 penalties that totaled 102 yards. Yet, the two defenses were good enough to force seven punts and four failed fourth-down conversions.

“When you’re playing a great team — and now you’re playing in a championship game — eliminating mistakes and penalties and turnovers is so important,” Walker said. “Things can be so even like they were the last time and there are a couple little things here or there that make a big impact and produce some momentum.”

Their first game was scoreless at half.

“We had some key drops and missed some people, but they’re a good football team,” Totten said. “At this point, you’ve got to prepare, you’ve got to hope you don’t turn the ball over, and you need an advantage in the kicking game.”

When Central Catholic’s offense scores, the team wins. The Vikings averaged 30.6 points in their seven wins and 10.5 points in four losses. They’re coming off a 28-7 semifinal win over Mt. Lebanon.

The Central offense starts with junior quarterback Payton Wehner, a second-year starter with 2,247 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. Wehner threw for two TDs and rushed for two more last week.

North Allegheny’s offense had scored at least 20 points in four consecutive games before last week’s 7-0 win over Canon-McMillan.

Again, the team’s only points came on a fourth-quarter touchdown run by Kushner. A junior, Kushner has passed for 1,263 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for six scores.

“They have a good athlete at quarterback,” Totten said. “You’ve got to keep him in the pocket.”

Totten became Central Catholic’s defensive coordinator late in the season when one of the Vikings’ longtime assistants resigned. Totten had run the defense earlier in his head coaching tenure, so he decided to take it back.

He was Walker’s top defensive assistant when Central Catholic won WPIAL titles in 2003 and ’04. The Vikings program really wasn’t a WPIAL powerhouse until then, but Walker now downplays his long-term impact on the program.

“He did a great job,” Totten said. “He rolled up his sleeves and got to work. … He did the heavy lifting. Believe me.”

Walker led North Allegheny to three consecutive WPIAL titles from 2010-12. The Tigers were in position to win a fourth in 2020 as the No. 1 seed but lost to Central Catholic, 38-24, in the finals. The Tigers want a different outcome this time.

“My seniors were sophomores and they remember that loss,” Walker said. “There’s kind of a greater focus and understanding that you don’t just want to get there. You want to complete the journey.”

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

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