There's a common characteristic that West Allegheny coach Bob Palko has noticed among WPIAL champions.
“I'll bet you there's not a team that wins the WPIAL that doesn't have great senior leadership,” he said. “Because that leadership is probably the reason you're there.”
As proof, he'll point to Zech Medved and Colin Cunningham. Then seniors, the two motivated the Indians to win last season's Class AAA title. One served as the emotional leader and the other encouraged discipline. Along with health, talent and simple luck, that leadership ranks crucial for winning, Palko said.
Each season coaches must wonder: Does their team have it?
Palko believes his still does.
“As soon as we started working out without those seniors, we were the older guys,” senior Tory Delmonico said. “And we were leading the team.”
Maintaining that perfect title-winning combination has proved difficult for defending Class AAA champions; none of the past four has returned to Heinz Field the following season. Not since Thomas Jefferson won three consecutive titles in 2006-08 has a Class AAA team won multiple crowns. Each year's team has its own personality.
“You're going to be a little different team (each season) because of what you lose,” TJ coach Bill Cherpak said. “That changes what you have to do. I think a lot of coaches don't see that. We were two totally different teams in the back-to-back years that we won it.”
The Jaguars were a physical, run-oriented team in 2007 yet evolved into more of a passing offense in 2008.
“What you have dictates how you're going to play,” Cherpak said. “It's not a cookie cutter.”
With a talented roster returning, West Allegheny seems poised for another postseason run. But Palko has insisted his Indians, who must rebuild their offensive and defensive lines, won't label themselves as clear favorites for Heinz Field.
“We want to be invited to the playoffs and try to improve every week,” he said. “That's all you can ask for. All that other stuff you can't control, so I don't worry about it.”
Meanwhile, dynasties reign in the WPIAL's other three classifications. Clairton has won the past five Class A titles, North Allegheny won three consecutive in Class AAAA and Aliquippa stands favored to win its third straight Class AA crown this season.
Count Cherpak's team among those wanting to extend the one-and-done trend in Class AAA. Thomas Jefferson was unbeaten last season before its semifinal loss to West Allegheny. The Jaguars just graduated a talented senior class but return a solid group of upperclassmen.
Also poised to challenge is Central Valley, which returns a senior starter at quarterback (Nathan Climo), along with several others in the Parkway Conference. Last year's Greater Allegheny winner Mars also has a veteran under center (Owen Nearhoof).
“Any time you win, you've got a target,” Palko said.
West Allegheny last won the WPIAL title in 2009. The Indians fell short in 2010, when star senior Mike Caputo suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1. Without him, the Indians reached the quarterfinals.
In 2011, defending champion Central Valley made only the semifinals. In 2012, after graduation had taken its record-setting quarterback among others, Montour's title defense ended in the quarters.
“You have to have a little bit of luck,” Palko said, referring to play on the field and on the roster.
He should know; West Allegheny won three consecutive titles in 1999-01 when son Tyler was the team's quarterback. Along with young stars, the Indians had veteran leaders.
“It depends on how your roster's set up,” Palko said. “You're not going to win with all sophomores. You need those older kids for leadership. And sometimes you get that one group that comes through, and there's no class behind them that's up to that potential.”
The Indians remain deep with talent. Their two leading rushers were sophomores a year ago, along with the team's starting quarterback. But it's last year's junior class that must lead.
“As long as you have good senior leadership,” Palko said, “you'll have a chance to win.”
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