Win caps undefeated season; second title in three years
With the clock still showing 2:54 left in the first quarter of the PIAA Class AAAA state-championship game, the North Allegheny football team had rushed out to a 21-0 lead over Coatesville. Two of those touchdowns were defensive scores en route to a 63-28 win at Hersheypark Stadium.
For most teams, such dominance might come as a surprise in a game of that magnitude, but according to Tigers quarterback Mack Leftwich, those defensive scores simply were a microcosm of North Allegheny's season as a whole and road to the state title.
“I think our ability to capitalize on turnovers like that was kind of a mirror image of what happened for us all year for the most part,” the senior quarterback said.
After a quick Tigers touchdown to start the game, the North Allegheny defense went to work as senior Brendan Coniker returned a fumble 80 yards for a touchdown followed by a Kevin Edwards 52-yard fumble return for a score.
On the strength of its defense, North Allegheny had the game in hand by the end of the first quarter, with a lead of 28-7.
“Our defense played tremendous all year,” Tigers head coach Art Walker Jr. said. “They progressively got better as the year went on.
“That first quarter was one of those situations where we took the ball first and went right down and scored. The defense found a way not only to get a turnover but turn it into points. And then, they did that again.
“The first quarter was an indicator of how well we can play when both sides of the ball are really clicking. Both turnovers were created; they weren't by chance. That defines how our defense played.”
The win — with a record-high point total for a PIAA championship — capped a season with an unblemished 16-0 record for North Allegheny, which claimed its second PIAA title in three years. This year's championship run was all the more sweet for the team after it got eliminated just one round short of the final game in Hershey last year on a last-second loss to Central Dauphin.
“Winning states was great with the work we put in, not only from the start of August when camp started, but all the work we put in over the summer felt like it all had paid off,” Leftwich said.
A state championship was the team's ultimate goal, but the Tigers could not have reached that goal without achieving others first.
“The concentration during camp was just to get better and compete within our own team. Then, when the season started, it was all about winning our conference,” Walker said. “After we won the section, our next goal was to win the WPIAL Championship and after that, it was to win the state title. We didn't ever put one before the other, and once we got one, we focused on the next.”
While the defense did its part all season and in the state final, Leftwich carried the team all year offensively before being named the state player of the year in Class AAAA. He finished his North Allegheny career in impressive fashion — by completing 16 of 20 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns against Coatesville while running for 90 yards on 16 carries.
The five-foot-11, 190-pound signal caller will continue his career at the collegiate level next season at Texas El-Paso.
After essentially breezing through its regular season schedule at 9-0, North Allegheny once again entered the WPIAL playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed and never really was tested until its 21-14 win over Woodland Hills in the WPIAL championship at Heinz Field.
The state playoffs told a similar story, as the Tigers outscored their three PIAA opponents — Erie McDowell, Wilson and Coatesville — by an overall score of 164-44.
Despite dismantling their opponents each week, the Tigers stayed focused on their goal throughout the entire playoff run.
“Our theme when the playoffs started was that our focus was on seven more days,” Walker said.
“Every playoff game, your back is against the wall, and you have to win if you want seven more days. That was the theme the entire way through until we said there weren't seven more days left.”
Leftwich became just the third WPIAL quarterback to throw for 3,000 this season and was joined on the all-state team by these fellow seniors: offensive lineman Patrick Kugler, tight end Zack Lyon, defensive back Coniker and defensive lineman Jeremy Gonzales.
A senior-laden team, the Tigers relied on the strength of their senior class on the road to Hershey, a path that saw the class win its third consecutive WPIAL title.
“This was a very senior-led team,” Leftwich said. “From a leadership and experience standpoint, this senior class was the most important on the team.
“We've accomplished a lot and done a lot of good things for North Allegheny football. Hopefully, the tradition we helped build will continue with the classes below us.”
Alex Oltmanns is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.