Sto-Rox embracing opportunity against No. 1 Clairton in WPIAL Class A final

Thursday, November 14, 2019 | 5:34 PM

When the first WPIAL championship football game at Heinz Field kicks off at 11 a.m. Saturday, the Class A title will be up for grabs between programs with very different stories.

One side will house third-seeded Sto-Rox (11-1), a team that did not make the postseason last year and has not won a championship since 1987.

The Vikings, who have beaten No. 6 Jeannette and No. 2 West Greene on their Highway to Heinz, hold two championship trophies in tow, but have lost all four times they’ve appeared in a game at Heinz Field. The other title the Vikings have says 1966, the first season after Stowe and McKees Rocks merged to make Sto-Rox.

The other side houses Clairton (10-2), the “power that is,” according to Vikings’ coach LaRoi Johnson. Clairton has won nine of the last 13 WPIAL Class A championships, and is returning to Heinz Field for the first time since 2015 after a title at Robert Morris in 2016 and two straight semifinal exits. The Bears are 9-1 all-time inside the stadium that sits near the confluence of the three rivers.

Sto-Rox is hoping to channel the theme of the Percy Shelley poem titled “Ozymandias,” where a traveler sees the imagery of the downfall of a power, a king of kings, of sorts. The Vikings will try to bring down the empire.

Half the battle is complete. Johnson says the Vikings believe.

“It’s been rewarding to see our hard work pay off. They didn’t listen to any of the outside negativity, and we mean what we say when we say we can win a state championship,” Johnson said. “Getting to the WPIAL championship game is another checkpoint. We’re not going to run away from an opportunity or shy away from the spotlight. When you play a sport you want to be the best, and playing a team like Clairton in this game comes along with being the best. We need to embrace it.”

Believing will take Sto-Rox to a point, but a team like Wayne Wade’s Clairton Bears don’t make that enough.

The Bears have won 13 WPIAL crowns in total, which places them second on the all-time leaderboard behind Aliquippa, which will play for its 18th title in the Class 3A game at Heinz Field.

Clairton last won a title at Heinz Field in 2015. It beat Jeannette at RMU in 2016 for the 13th championship in the storied program’s history.

This year, the Bears started 0-2 for the first time since 2005, with losses to Aliquippa and Class 2A playoff-qualifier McGuffey. They allowed 77 points in those two games combined, the most for a Clairton team in the first two games of the season since 1974, when they allowed 78.

Since then, however, the Bears have gotten healthy, and have dominated their way to the title game, winning 10 in a row, and allowing under six points per game against Class A competition. They haven’t allowed a single point in the playoffs.

In a lot of ways, Wade and his team feel like they’re coming back home to Heinz Field, a venue where they’ve flourished over the years in big games.

“These guys haven’t had the opportunity to play at Heinz, and they’re excited about getting back there with the tradition we’ve had there,” Wade said. “We have experience doing it as a coaching staff so our plan is to take it in stride and not let the kids get too wrapped up in it, but let them enjoy it at the same time. I think the community is excited for us to be back at Heinz Field, too.”

Sto-Rox’s game, on offense at least, is predicated on a couple things: the aerial attack led by senior quarterback Eric Wilson, who has 7,740 career passing yards, and his talented group of receivers, the only group in the WPIAL that can boast four separate players with 30 or more receptions, as well as a young but stout running game that is helped along by a good offensive line.

Wilson, whose career yardage places him sixth on the WPIAL’s all-time passing charts, figures to use Amahd Pack, Jaidon Berry, Traynell Paxton and freshman running back Zay Davis a lot in the pass game. Pack leads the bunch with 13 scores and 819 yards on 53 catches this season. The senior had nine grabs for 132 yards and two deep scores against West Greene last week.

The work in the backfield is led by Davis and two-way star junior Diontae Givens, both of whom Johnson says are receiving FBS interest. Givens is getting it primarily as a middle linebacker, where he has a team-high 110 tackles, including 26 for loss and four sacks, but he factors in the run game as a power back. Davis, despite his youth, is a fast, downhill, shifty runner, who has carried the ball for close to 700 yards this season and 13 touchdowns.

The Sto-Rox defense will have to play well, too.

“Clairton is fast. They’ve got a lot of talent that can make plays from anywhere, so we’ve got to be aware of that and attack,” Johnson said. “If you can’t rush the ball and protect your quarterback, you’re in trouble. It will be a matter of who can get their superstar involved faster.”

The Bears boast a powerful run game behind primarily three players, including senior quarterback Brendan Parsons, who is one of four seniors on the roster. Parsons has accumulated close to 2,600 all-purpose yards this season and has talented receiving threat Kenlein Ogletree, a junior in tow. Ogletree also does a lot defensively as a safety for the Bears and, according to Wade, is a Division I prospect.

Dontae Sanders and Isaiah Berry are “Thunder and Lightning” for Wade’s Clairton squad this season. The juniors get the bulk of the run-game work. Berry leads the team in attempts with close to 120 and has close to 1,000 yards on the year, while Sanders has rushed about half the times Berry has, but sports close to 500 yards. Parsons, Berry and Sanders are amongst the top five in the classification in average yards per carry.

The defense, though, has been the calling card for the Bears this season. Since the first two games, the Bears have allowed two scores in a game just twice, and have four shutouts, including both playoff wins.

Wade said the “defense wins championships” mantra is something his program takes pride in, and he expects to have to deal with Sto-Rox’s speed on that side of the ball, but also said he knows his offense will have to put points up.

“We have to get at their quarterback and make him move out of the pocket, but the receivers are skilled. They can take a 5-yard pass and turn it into a 50- or 60-yard touchdown,” Wade said. “If you look at why we’ve had success it’s been our defense, and we usually have the skill players that put up great numbers on the offensive side. We try to have a balanced attack with good line play on both sides.”

The start time is not conventional either, but both coaches said their guys will be well-rested, despite it being hard to prepare for a morning game.

Wade and Johnson both said once the ball is kicked, it’ll just be another football game, and the start being in the morning hours won’t matter.

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