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West A Shoots For History
BY Paul Paterra

No WPIAL football team, has even won a Class AAA PIAA title.

Then again, a quick look at the Class AAA picture shows that the title game has been the domain of two teams - Berwick and Allentown Central Catholic.

Those two schools have combined for the last seven seven titles and eight of the 11 that have been collected. Berwick has championships in 1988, 1992 and every year from 1994-97. Allentown Central Catholic owns the crowns from 1993 and last year.

A new name will join the list of Class AAA PIAA champs this season when West Allegheny (13-0) takes on Strath Haven (14-0) Friday at 7 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium.

West Allegheny (13-0) does give the appearance of a team that could be the first from the WPIAL to claim a Class AAA state crown.

The Indians play solid defense. They've given up only 50 points this season and have blanked seven opponents. They limited an explosive Perry team to 89 yards on the ground in last week's PIAA semifinal. The Indians also forced five Perry turnovers.

They're also a solid offensive team. They've scored 438 points, for an average of 33.7 a game.

"Our team has been playing extremely well," said West Allegheny coach Bob Palko. "Our execution hasn't been perfect, but we've been executing and making plays. When you execute and make plays on offense, you're going to have some success."

Sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko - the coach's son - guides the offense with a steady hand. He has thrown for 1,345 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. "He's making smart decisions with the football and not being careless or try to make too much happen," the coach said of his son.

The rest of the offense is balanced with a bevy of players contributing. In recent games, senior wide receiver Allen Miller has made a habit of making the big play. He ran for a 50-yard touchdown on the Indians' first offensive play in the WPIAL semifinal game against Thomas Jefferson. He made an acrobatic catch for a touchdown in the WPIAL title game against Belle Vernon and grabbed two touchdown passes last week against Perry.

"We knew he was very talented," Palko said of Miller. "As the games get bigger and bigger, you have to put the ball in the hands of the players that can do it."

It is a team that has impressed its next opponent.

"I like them a lot," said Strath Haven coach Kevin Clancy of the Indians. "They're good in every aspect of the game."

Strath Haven (14-0) does pose quite an obstacle to the Indians. First, the Panthers would like to see a certain characteristic end. The Panthers have lost to the eventual state champion each of the last three postseasons, including a loss to Allentown Central Catholic in last year's Eastern Region final.

The Panthers copped the championship of the Central League, in Delaware County this season. It's a league that features mostly Quad A teams.

"To be in the state finals, they're obviously a good football team," said Palko of the Panthers. "They've got some nice-sized lineman, a nice-sized quarterback and three pretty good running backs. They're going to run the ball, try to wear you down and beat on you."

The Panthers also know how to handle adversity. "We had injuries early in the season," Clancy explained. "I think some people thought we were going to be strong in the beginning of the year. I wasn't so sure. We were just getting by in the beginning of the year. After some of our key players returned, we gained some momentum and we seem to be peaking in the playoffs."

When speaking of key players for the Panthers, the conversation usually begins with running back Mark Jones. Jones is a 5-10, 180-pound speedster who is committed to the University of Tennessee.

"He's a great open-field, broken field runner," Clancy said of Jones. "He also has a great ability to catch the ball."

Jones does quite a bit for the Panthers. He also plays free safety, punts and returns kicks.

While Jones is the most potent cog in the Panthers' Wing-T attack, quarterback Mike Connor triggers the offense with precision.

The 6-4, 205-pound junior has been starting at the position since his junior season. In two seasons at the helm of the Panthers' offense Connor has thrown for 2,515 yards. This season, he's completed 73 of 133 passes for 1,232 yards and 14 touchdowns. His father, Jim, is the Panthers' defensive coordinator

"He's a very, very steady player," Clancy said of Connor. "He's got a real nice arm and a nice touch on the ball and he understands football. Our kids believe in him and have confidence in him."

There is one more step for these two teams on a path they hope leads to a state championship. One more game to play on a journey that each team hoes will culminate with a PIAA championship trophy.