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Scholastic Notebook
By Rich Emert
The Valley News Dispatch

Will this be the year a WPIAL team finally breaks the string?

Since the PIAA instituted football championships in 1988, no WPIAL team has won the Class AAA title. Only two teams from the west - Perry Traditional Academy from the Pittsburgh City League in 1989 and Erie Strong Vincent in 1991 - have won the PIAA Class AAA crown.

At 7 p.m. Friday at Hersheypark Stadium, WPIAL champion West Allegheny will try to make history when it takes on Strath Haven in the Class AAA final. Both teams are undefeated.

"Berwick has had a lot to do with the (east's) dominance," Strath Haven coach Kevin Clancy said.

South Side Beaver (14-0) will go after the Class A title at 2 p.m. Friday at Hersheypark Stadium. The Rams will meet Southern Columbia (11-3), which is in the PIAA final for the fourth time in five years. Saturday at noon, Tyrone (14-0) meets Mount Carmel (11-3) for the Class AA crown. Then at 5 p.m., Central Bucks West (14-0) will go after its third PIAA Class AAAA title when it takes on Erie Cathedral Prep (13-0).

Strath Haven (14-0) and West Allegheny (13-0) are similar. Both have outstanding defenses, talented quarterbacks, solid offensive linemen and strong running games. There is one difference. Strath Haven has Mark Jones.

Jones, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior, is a speedster who does a little bit of everything. He has rushed 93 times for 821 yards and hauled in 28 passes for another 579. Jones, whose brother Ike plays for the Indianapolis Colts, also returns punts and kickoffs. He has verbally committed to Tennessee.

"Tennessee doesn't come to Pennsylvania to get a skill-position player unless he's something special," West Allegheny coach Bob Palko said. "You don't change anything for a player like that, but you certainly pay attention to him. You don't want to kick the ball to him or anything like that."

Strath Haven isn't just Jones. There's also quarterback Mike Connor, 6-4, 205, who has completed 73 of 133 passes for 1,232 yards and 14 touchdowns. Fullback Pete Celebre isn't big at 5-8, 185, but has rushed for 1,006 yards on 198 carries.

Sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko is West Allegheny's leader. He has completed 77 of 141 passes for 1,355 yards. In the PIAA western final against Perry, Palko was 9 of 17 for 182 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed seven times for 46 yards and two more scores.

"He's a lot like their team, very poised and disciplined," Clancy said.

Kellen Campbell has come on as West Allegheny's top running back. He has 793 yards on 107 carries, but missed a couple games with injuries. Jamie Fitzgerald has 622 yards on 97 carries. Joe Slappy, another sophomore, has caught 30 passes for 513 yards and scored 10 touchdowns.

For most of the season West Allegheny and Strath Haven have been one-two in defense in the state. West Allegheny has seven shutouts and has allowed just 52 points. Strath Haven has nine shutouts and has given up only 58 points. That means this should be a low scoring game, right?

"I don't know about that," Bob Palko said. "It should be a great game, with two great defense. They've just got the big playmaker."

While Southern Columbia has been in the Class A final a great deal lately, it has won just once, beating Western Beaver 49-6 in 1994. Southern Columbia lost to Rochester, another Beaver County school, 18-0 in last year's championship game. But Southern Columbia coach Jim Roth likes his team's chances this year.

"We were hobbled last year coming in and had a tough game in the eastern final against Schuylkill Haven," Roth said. "It just seemed like we didn't have anything left, but I don't get that sense this year."

South Side Beaver and Southern Columbia use the Delaware Wing-T on offense, which is interesting. Southern Columbia doesn't break many big plays. Instead, the Tigers are content to pound away at opponents.

Shaun Gaul is Southern Columbia's leading rusher with 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns on 293 carries. Nate Richards has 649 yards on 113 attempts and Andy Hornberger has 504 yards. Quarterback Matt Kaskie has completed 98 of 181 passes for 1,721 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Quarterback Sean McCune, 6-2, 185, is South Side Beaver's leader. He has completed 63 of 105 passes for 1,146 yards and 16 touchdowns. He is also the team's second leading rusher with 862 yards on 139 carries. Defensively, he's intercepted seven passes.

Fullback Cory Boyd is South Side Beaver's leading rusher with 1,237 yards on 180 carries and 26 touchdowns.

"Watching them is a little like looking in the mirror because they do a lot of the same things we do," South Side Beaver coach Glenn McDougal said.

Roth said the pressure is on South Side Beaver in the final because it is undefeated. "That can work against you sometimes because the players haven't tasted defeat," he said.

McDougal doesn't think that will be a problem. "When we went to the WPIAL final at Three Rivers they approached it like it was just another game," he said. "That's the way they'll approach this one."

Predictions: The WPIAL has not fared well at the PIAA championships in recent years. It could be shut out this year.

Look for the east to take three of the four title games. Tyrone, from the Altoona area, has the best chance of any western team to win. Look for Southern Columbia to beat South Side Beaver by three, Strath Haven to down West Allegheny by seven, Tyrone to win by five and Central Bucks West to defeat Cathedral Prep by seven.