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Defending The Mountain
By Don Rebel

It's one thing to climb the hill to the top, and yet another to stay there.

While high school football teams around Western Pennsylvania prepare for the upcoming 1999 season, they are beginning to target their objectives for the campaign. Most teams will aspire to tackle a WPIAL championship this year.

However, four teams will enter the season with a slightly different agenda. They must fend off all challenges, in an effort to successfully defend their WPIAL titles... and it won't be easy. Graduation has hindered these teams. New Castle, Moon, Shady Side Academy, and Rochester are all set back by losing key players to graduation. Most experts believe there won't be a repeat champion in '99, but don't tell that to the coaches and players of these four respective teams. For now, they are on top, and they don't plan to be removed easily from the perch atop the WPIAL.

The four champions of 1998 acquired their titles through different paths. New Castle and Moon each finished third in the Quad North and Parkway conferences, respectively. The Hurricanes and Tigers got fiery when the temperature outside got cold, winning four straight games in the post-season. New Castle knocked off rival North Allegheny in the finals 14-7, while Moon upset rival Blackhawk 34-7.

Meanwhile, Shady Side Academy and Rochester had top rated teams going into the season, staying at or near the top the entire season. Shady Side Academy ended up going 9-1, en route to an Allegheny Conference title. The Indians won three playoff games before topping Washington in the Class AA finals 30-12. Rochester was a perfect 9-0, winning the Big Seven Championship. Then, the Rams breezed into the title game, before squeaking past rival Monaca, in only the second overtime game in WPIAL history, 24-18. Rochester went on to win the PIAA State Championship two weeks later, shutting down Southern Columbia 18-0.

This year however, Dan Matsook's Rams will be hard pressed to even make the post-season, after saying goodbye to nearly their entire backfield, including running backs Reuben Jackson, Randy Anderson, and Darrell Damon. Two players who will be counted on heavily by the Rams are running back Randy Bacon and receiver Brandon Matsook.

A new look is also in store for Shady Side Academy. Not only did they lose alot of key players to graduation, they lost their legendary coach to retirement. After winning WPIAL gold last year and finishing second in states, Art Walker stepped down as the Indians chief. Trying to fill his shoes this season is school athletic director Gene Deal. Deal will strongly rely on linebackers David Gombkoto and Ric San Doval, as well as receiver/defensive back Clarence Gillcrease.

One of the great stories of 1998 came from the West Hills of Pittsburgh, with the Moon Tigers. Mark Capuano's team came from no where, to intercept one of the most impressive seasons in WPIAL history. Even though the Tigers tasted defeat three times in '98, including a 10-0 heartbreaking loss in the state finals to Allentown Central Catholic, they dominated on the defensive side of the ball. In fifteen games, Moon allowed only 58 points, including nine shutouts, for an amazing average of just under 4 points per game. Two key players who are back from last year's team will be offensive tackle/defensive tackle Mickey Keene and tight end/defensive end Tim Morrow.

The team with the best chance to repeat as champion may be the Red Hurricanes of New Castle. Last year, contending in the very competitive Quad-North, they made the playoffs, then steam rolled their way into the State Finals, where they lost to Central Bucks West 56-7. Coach Gary Schooley has some studs back to defend their WPIAL title, led by 6-foot-6, 315-pound offensive guard Nick Marmo, a Penn State University recruit. Also returning are running backs John Rosati and Justin Sheldone, and receiver Corey Lemmon. The Canes, with a void at quarterback, will be able to rely on points off the toe of Pasquale Romano, one of the better kickers in the WPIAL.

Many of the players on these four teams know what it takes to win a championship. The big question now is, do they have what it takes to win it again?