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After long absences from WPIAL semis, four teams seek upsets

| Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, 11:20 p.m.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Washington's Shai McKenzie scores his team's first touchdown against Mt. Pleasant early in the first quarter Friday, Oct. 12, 2012.

These WPIAL semifinals are long on tradition and short on spoilers.

With three defending champions, three runners-up and seven of 16 semifinalists back from last year, there are plenty of teams who fit the former billing and only a handful who belong to the latter.

Where perennial powers Aliquippa, Clairton and North Allegheny are on one end of the spectrum, Neshannock and Seneca Valley are on the other.

That leaves Washington and West Mifflin somewhere in between.

Both are programs with proud histories. Since 1990, the Little Prexies have made five WPIAL finals appearances, winning two Class AA titles. The Titans played for the WPIAL Class AAA championship in 2000 and '04.

Neither, however, has reached the semifinals in the past five years.

In fact, West Mifflin missed the postseason five consecutive years before making a run to the quarterfinals last season, where it lost to eventual champion Montour. Washington was 1-8 in 2008 and didn't qualify for the AA playoffs in '07 or '10. The Prexies (11-0) play South Fayette (11-0) on Friday.

“The kids have proven a lot of people wrong, so this group may have a chip on their shoulder to prove that Wash High does belong among the elite,” Prexies coach Mike Bosnic said. “I think it plays to our advantage. There's a tremendous tradition here. When we were down, a lot of people were upset. It didn't sit well. There's a sense of pride in this program.”

South Fayette is in the semifinals for the second time in three seasons. The Lions won the 2010 WPIAL Class AA title and played in the PIAA final. That said, South Fayette coach Joe Rossi doesn't believe Wash High should be considered an underdog.

“Anybody that gets to the semifinals is going to be good,” Rossi said. “I don't think they're a spoiler. They're No. 3 for a reason. These guys are 11-0 for a reason. There's no spoilers.”

Neshannock had never won a WPIAL playoff game before beating Jefferson-Morgan in the first round. Now the Lancers (10-1) find themselves in the Class A semifinals against four-time defending champion Clairton (11-0), which is riding a 58-game winning streak and can tie Central Bucks West's state record for consecutive victories by advancing to Heinz Field for the fifth straight year.

“The majority of it is game-planning, but they're kids,” Neshannock coach Fred Mazzocio said. “They read the Internet and the papers. They know the task at hand.”

There is prevailing sentiment that once a team becomes accustomed to playing in the WPIAL semifinals, its players understand what it takes to return and advance to the final. That's something Seneca Valley hasn't experienced since 1989, when it lost to Aliquippa in the Class AAA final.

Thomas Jefferson had its 13-year semifinals streak snapped last season, but the Jaguars lost in that round eight straight years before playing in six consecutive WPIAL finals from 2003-08, winning four titles.

“I think the thing is, when you're in that game, you don't realize what's at stake; you're just trying to win,” said TJ coach Bill Cherpak, whose Jaguars (11-0) play West Allegheny (10-1). “Once you get past that roadblock, your focus is not just on being there but winning.”

Art Walker understands, given that he led Central Catholic to its first WPIAL Class AAAA final in 2001 — a loss to Woodland Hills — before winning back-to-back titles in '03 and '04. When he took over North Allegheny, the Tigers hadn't been to the WPIAL final since 1998. Now they have won two consecutive championships and are trying to become the first Class AAAA team to win three in a row.

“It's definitely a new experience the first time you do it,” said Walker, whose Tigers (11-0) play Seneca Valley (10-1). “We're fortunate to be in a position where we've been there before. It's all how they handle it. That's going to be up to them, how they handle it as a team and as a program. We just have to worry about ourselves.”

Or risk being upset.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kgorman@tribweb.com or 412-320-7812.

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