West Mifflin, Elizabeth Forward stars figure to steal show in Big 9 matchup
When Class AAA No. 3 West Mifflin and No. 7 Elizabeth Forward come together on Thursday night at EF's Warrior Stadium for Root Sports' regionally televised weekly football game, a trio of players figure to find their way into the limelight.
Oh, and don't forget the importance of the game, itself.
West Mifflin (5-0, 5-0) leads No. 2 Thomas Jefferson by a half-game and Elizabeth Forward (4-1, 4-1) by one game in the Big 9 Conference race.
“It's one of the bigger games of the year,” West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo said. “You need to win every one of them.”
West Mifflin came close in 2012, losing just twice in 13 games, including 34-8 to West Allegheny in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game at Heinz Field.
That game, too, was a regionally televised affair.
“This is the first time this year for our guys, but we were on TV for the final last year. The kids look forward to it,” Braszo said. “They really enjoy it.
“I'd like an extra day of preparation, like we have normally for Friday night games, but it's not a real big deal. The other team is in the same boat. You just make an adjustment.”
That is the sentiments precisely of Elizabeth Forward coach Mike LeDonne, who said he hopes the Warriors' prime-time experience goes a little bit better than the last time, when they were drubbed in a televised 2006 game against Thomas Jefferson.
“All I know is it wasn't too pleasant,” LeDonne said, though he wasn't at Elizabeth Forward at the time.
Some consolation. He still has been hearing about that forgettable 61-0 loss to TJ.
“We're looking forward to a good game this time around,” he said.
About those three players who've made names for themselves: West Mifflin has ridden the shoulders — and legs — of durable running back Jimmy Wheeler to an unbeaten season thus far; Elizabeth Forward has relied on the dangerous tandem of quarterback JaQuan Davidson and wide receiver/kick returner Matt Bernadowski.
While Wheeler is on pace to set rushing records in the WPIAL — he's gained 1,312 yards this season after getting more than 2,200 in 2012 — Davidson and Bernadowski have been nothing short of electrifying.
“They're definitely two very skilled kids, but you can't focus just on them,” Braszo said.
It might be difficult for West Mifflin not to.
Davidson has combined to pass and rush for nearly 900 yards and Bernadowski has been on the receiving end of nearly all of Davidson's 392 yards passing while scoring in a variety of ways.
Davidson will announce his college decision Thursday, likely choosing between Pitt and West Virginia. The senior quarterback/defensive back will record his announcement earlier in the day to be shown during the telecast, LeDonne said.
“Bernadowski is a big-time player who can hurt you in so many ways,” Braszo said. “Davidson is scary. He's going to have the ball in his hands almost all of the time. They're comparable. We'll have a tough time containing them.”
Of course, if West Mifflin's offense can have some time with the ball, expect Wheeler to go to work.
“As a defensive-minded coach, it doesn't excite me to match them point for point,” LeDonne said. “We have guys who can hit home runs and they have guys that can hit home runs. Their defensive line last year beat us. The challenge is out there for our offensive to pound them and move the chains.”