A-K Valley football teams looking to snap WPIAL title drought
One game from Springdale's 2003 WPIAL football championship season sticks out for Don "Pappy" Boulton, and it's not the Dynamos' Class A title-game win over Sto-Rox at Heinz Field.
"We opened up the season with a terrible, terrible loss up at Union in a big thunder and rain storm," said Boulton, the defensive coordinator under coach Chuck Wagner that season. "Right after that, we had a big coaches' meeting because we had really believed in our kids, who were so disappointed. We had a big meeting at coach Wagner's home to make sure we had our P's and Q's straight, got back to work and turned it right around."
Those Dynamos lost three times in the regular season but found their magic in the WPIAL postseason, including a 30-13 triumph over Sto-Rox and star quarterback Adam DiMichele in the early game at Heinz Field.
Since that year, no team has brought a WPIAL football title home to the Alle-Kiski Valley.
Springdale came close again in 2007, dropping a four-point decision to Serra Catholic in the Class A championship game, and bowed out in the semifinals in 2004, '05 and '10. Burrell (2004), Highlands (2008) and Freeport (2015) also made semifinal appearances, but none brought home a title.
"There's a lot of pressure," said Valley coach Muzzy Colosimo, who led Greensburg Central Catholic to the 2009 WPIAL Class AA title. "I don't believe they've won a WPIAL title here in 51 or 52 years. They haven't won a title since they were New Ken. For kids, they don't realize how long that it is.
"… It's not like it happens every year, or you get a team like Clairton that does it, you get Woodland Hills, you get North Allegheny. Those kids do it, and it's because they believe in their program. They believe in themselves, and the big thing is they believe in each other. You do it as a team, and that's the thing I'm trying to get across to these guys."
So many factors go into a team winning a championship, but one stands out among coaches.
"The team that usually 95 percent of the time that wins the conference is the team that was the healthiest," said Freeport's John Gaillot, leading a sentiment that most of his coaching brethren echoed.
Apollo-Ridge's John Skiba: "A lot of teams in the A-K, we have down numbers, so for us to be able to compete, we'd better be healthy."
Kiski Area's Sam Albert: "You either have to have a lot of depth or you have to be lucky enough that nobody gets hurt. And especially your key players."
And so on. But injuries can happen in an instant, either on or off the field.
Albert, who took Valley to the 1991 WPIAL championship game, said the team stayed healthy until it reached Three Rivers Stadium, when three players went down with injuries. In 2008, while coaching at Highlands, one of his players went down during a game of "duck-duck-goose" at practice. Those Golden Rams still made the semifinals. And in '14, his top two running backs went down to injury in Highlands' quarterfinal loss to Seton-La Salle.
Apollo-Ridge lost standout running back Duane Brown to injury during each of the past two regular seasons. Although the Vikings made the playoffs each year, they ended up with a lower seed because of games lost during Brown's absence. Skiba now ensures his players can play multiple positions and can step in should an injury occur.
"I keep telling these kids, you'd better know everything — don't just know one," said Skiba, an assistant on Pine-Richland's WPIAL championship team in 2003. "We need to have that guy be able to step up."
With injuries a near certainty, role players also take on extra importance.
"We always used to say an analogy was driving a bus," Albert said. "Not everybody can be the driver. Not everybody can be the steering wheel. You need those lugnuts, too, to hold on to the wheel. It's everybody accepting that role and working together."
Just as important to winning a championship, coaches insist, are the intangibles.
Colosimo said there comes a point in the season when teams "really need to start having fun." Greensburg Central Catholic began the 2009 season 2-2 but didn't lose again until the PIAA championship game.
"I was just about ready to fire my seniors," Colosimo said. "I told them they had one week to put it together, and we won the next week and the kids never thought they'd lose again."
Boulton had a similar experience on the bus ride to Heinz Field in 2003. He noticed how confident the players were.
"It was really pleasantly surprising," Boulton said. "They didn't feel like underdogs."
"When I got on the bus, I sat down and thought, they're in a really good mood. Normally, you'd be nervous, and they were just in a real good mood. I felt right then that, my gosh, either we're really ready or we're in trouble."
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.