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Numbers favor N.A., but tough defense awaits

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
North Allegheny lineman Patrick Kugler blocks Erie McDowell's Joel Mascharka during PIAA quarterfinal game at Seneca Valley Nov. 30, 2012.

SATURDAY'S PIAA CLASS AAAA SEMIFINAL

North Allegheny vs. West Lawn Wilson

3 p.m., at Altoona's Mansion Park Stadium

Records: North Allegheny (14-0); West Lawn Wilson (13-1)

Of note: North Allegheny is 43-2 the past three seasons, with its only losses coming to North Hills in the 2010 regular-season finale and to Central Dauphin in the PIAA semifinals last year; Tigers QB Mack Leftwich, a two-year starter, surpassed the 5,000-yard passing mark last week. WR Gregg Garrity became the school's first 1,000-yard receiver. Wilson junior QB Matt Timochenko has completed 47-of-100 passes for 559 yards, with four TDs and three INTs. The Bulldogs' leading rushers are Jesse Poore (766 yards, 10 TDs) and Jimmy Brooks (699, 13), and Javon Young has a team-best 26 receptions for 580 yards and five TDs. Wilson lost to Upper St. Clair in the 1989 PIAA final, and to Bethel Park in the ‘08 PIAA semifinals.

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North Allegheny is two years removed from winning a PIAA Class AAAA championship and one year from losing to Central Dauphin in the state semifinals.

So Art Walker didn't have to spend much time telling his Tigers about the importance of Saturday's game against West Lawn Wilson.

“We're a game away,” Walker said. “The nice thing is, it really hasn't been talked about that much. We watched film, and the only thing I said was, ‘We were in this position last year, and we went home. If you want to be one of those two teams left, you cannot look a second past Saturday.'

“That's the thing about this team: They don't really talk about the numbers. They don't talk about the last three years. They don't even talk about winning three WPIAL titles in a row. They're good about handling the pressure and expectations and deflecting all of that. They've had a great focus. We haven't had to remind them of the little things. They know they don't want it to end until it has to.”

For North Allegheny (14-0), the road to returning to Hershey goes through Wilson (13-1), when they meet in a PIAA Class AAAA semifinal at 3 p.m. Saturday at Altoona's Mansion Park Stadium. That a three-plus hour bus trip awaits Wilson, which is located outside of Reading, has coach Doug Dahms fuming.

“I don't mind going west; I don't like the fact that we're playing in the afternoon,” Dahms said. “I pushed hard to play at 6 o'clock. I don't know what the PIAA's problem is.”

The numbers favor the Tigers making a return trip to the PIAA finals in Hershey. Where North Allegheny features a 2,900-yard passer in Mack Leftwich, a 1,000-yard rusher in Alex DiCiantis and a 1,000-yard receiver in Gregg Garrity, Wilson doesn't have a 1,000-yard performer at any position.

The Bulldogs, whose alums include NFL quarterbacks Kerry Collins and Chad Henne, have rotated three players at the position this season. They use a tailback-by-committee format in a run-oriented scheme.

Safe to say, Wilson's strength is its defense.

“That's their No. 1 thing,” Walker said. “They're going to say, ‘You've got to beat our defense to beat us.' That's their philosophy.”

Dahms said he believes the Bulldogs must keep it close to have a chance of beating North Allegheny.

“That's obviously going to be huge because we haven't been a grind-it-out offense,” Dahms said. “Our best chance of winning is a low-scoring game.”

North Allegheny's closest games this season were against Gateway (14-3) and Woodland Hills (21-14), so it's no surprise Walker compared Wilson's defense to those WPIAL powers. The Bulldogs feature Division I recruits at defensive end in 6-foot-2, 230-pound Junior Joseph (Connecticut) and 6-2, 237-pound Matt Rothrock (Lafayette), stout linebackers in Madison Miller and Dominic Moyer and a speedy secondary led by Jimmy Brooks and Jesse Poore, who double as running backs.

“If we can establish moving the ball on them — and not just big-play stuff — they're a bend-but-don't-break defense,” Walker said. “They make you earn it. If we can mix things up and move the ball and get it in the end zone and help our defense out, that would be helpful.”

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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