North Allegheny's Jeremy Gonzales (right) gives the 'three-peat' sign as the Tigers celebrate with the championship trophy after defeating Woodland Hills in the WPIAL Class AAAA final on Nov. 23 at Heinz Field. Gonzales grew up in the Deer Lakes School District. Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
With only a couple practices and one game left, North Allegheny coach Art Walker wants his players and coaches to fully appreciate the season's final days.
It's an acquired approach for Walker, who's planning his third trip to Hershey.
“You've really got to take some time and do your best to enjoy it,” he said. “I've focused on doing that the last couple years. Enjoy the opportunity and enjoy what comes with it because every season isn't going to be like this.”
Few programs experience one season like this. The Tigers have had three. But with a roster heavy in seniors, this weekend completes a record-setting run for North Allegheny, a three-year span that already includes 44 victories, three consecutive WPIAL titles and one state championship.
“This group has won more games than any group of North Allegheny football players in history,” Walker said. “It's going to be a tough act to follow, there's no question about that.”
It's not that the Tigers won't be good again next season, but for 19 of 22 starters, Saturday will be their final game. The Tigers face District 1 winner Coatesville in the PIAA Class AAAA championship at 6 p.m.
It's time to appreciate this final road trip.
“We talked about it,” Walker said, “because we're so senior-oriented this year. It's like, hey, let's enjoy these kids.”
Coatesville will be making its first trip to the state championships. The Red Raiders use a spread offense led by 2,900-yard passer Emmett Hunt (6-foot-2, 210 pounds). The senior has thrown 43 touchdowns and just three interceptions as a first-year starter.
Senior wideout Chris Jones (6-0, 175) ranks as Hunt's top receiver, with 68 catches for 1,478 yards and 24 touchdowns. Another senior, Dre Boggs (5-10, 170), ranks second with 33 catches, 804 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“We have to make sure they don't score big plays very quickly,” Walker said. “We have to work the clock a little bit. We don't want to get into a shootout with them.”
In Walker's mind, a victory at Hersheypark Stadium would be the only suitable sendoff for his seniors. The Tigers' place in WPIAL history is secure as the first to win three consecutive Class AAAA titles. But another state title would earn them a spot in PIAA history. Among Quad-A champions, only Central Bucks West has won multiple state titles during a three-year span. CB West won three straight between 1997-99.
“We're going to try to finish this thing how they deserve it to be finished: on top,” Walker said. “It would put a fitting end to a great career. We'll have fun with that.”
Fun has been a part of this team's personality. Most were around in 2010, when the Tigers won the PIAA title with a victory over La Salle College. This NA roster is a little more light-hearted than that group, Walker said — a trait he's fine with during an 18-week marathon.
“They joke around a little bit more,” Walker said, “but when it's time to play, they're very business-like. There are probably more lighter moments than we've had in the past, but I think that's based on the amount of experience they've had. We didn't have to teach them what this process is about.”
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