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Gorman: A WPIAL tradition for Thanksgiving Day

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Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 11:22 p.m.

When it comes to Thanksgiving in Western Pennsylvania, a favorite way to celebrate the holiday is with a Turkey Bowl football game.

For WPIAL teams, there is nothing like having football practice. Not in the Allen Iverson we're talking about practice sense, either.

Since the inception of the WPIAL playoffs in 1971, if a team is practicing on Thanksgiving Day, it almost always means that it is playing for a WPIAL title that weekend.

“It's a great day, one of those days where everybody is in a good mood, upbeat and has a lot of energy,” said North Allegheny coach Art Walker, whose Tigers are in Friday's WPIAL Class AAAA final for the third straight year.

“There's no school. Your family gets together for dinner. And you know you're one of two teams left in the WPIAL in your classification. There's a sense of accomplishment on that day. Most coaches will tell you it is one of their most fun experiences.”

Woodland Hills, in the Quad-A final for the ninth time since 1996, treats Thanksgiving Day as an alumni reunion. Dozens of former players return to the Wolvarena for morning practice, sharing stories of their championship runs.

“We joke around about it, that you want to be practicing on Thanksgiving,” said Woodland Hills coach George Novak, whose Wolverines have won five WPIAL titles. “I think the alumni enjoy it more than the kids do. It's a positive thing. We'd like to build on this tradition.”

Mike Zmijanac spotted Pudgie Abercrombie, Victor Lay and Darryl Revis — stars of Aliquippa's 1984 WPIAL Class AAA champions — sitting in the bleachers at The Pit during practice last Thanksgiving.

The Quips' coach took his team aside and told the players: “These guys you're looking at are legends. They're the reason your program is the way it is.”

Zmijanac started Thanksgiving practice at the same time as Aliquippa's kickoff at Heinz Field, so family dinners had to be scheduled around it.

“It's a milestone,” said Zmijanac, whose Quips are in their fifth straight Class AA final and eighth since 2000. “When you're practicing on Thanksgiving, there's not many teams playing. If you do it often enough, it is a tradition. But it's one that's earned.”

Wayne Wade has experienced Thanksgiving Day practice as both a player and a coach at Clairton. He starred on the Bears' 1989 WPIAL champions, and has been the defensive coordinator for Clairton's five consecutive WPIAL Class A final appearances and nation's-best 59-game winning streak.

“As a kid, I was just so happy and excited to be playing in the championship game. To practice on Thanksgiving, it was a huge deal. We related that to the NFL, especially playing in the Steelers' stadium,” Wade said.

“The kids see it as fun, like it's a dress rehearsal for the WPIAL championships. Now, I just see it as another work day. But it's a good time to talk about being thankful for where we are in the season.”

Not to mention where they're not: At home.

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