Woodland Hills, Class AAAA's top seeds face stiff challenges in opening round
The WPIAL doesn't schedule first-round byes in the football playoffs, but some Class AAAA matchups in years past have almost been the equivalent.
In the past five seasons, only six lower seeds have won.
“Over the years, a lot of the first-round games weren't all that exciting,” Woodland Hills coach George Novak said. “This year, it's different.”
A few higher seeds could be tested Friday night when the playoffs start in the WPIAL. That might include No. 4 Woodland Hills, which welcomes No. 13 Pine-Richland to the Wolvarena in Turtle Creek. Pine-Richland's offense leads Class AAAA in yards.
“There's a lot of parity in Quad-A,” said Novak, who called Pine-Richland a very good team. “If you go down through the teams, this is the strongest field top to bottom that I can remember in years. There's a lot of great matchups for (seeds) five, six, seven and eight. All four of those games are tough games.”
No. 5 Seneca Valley drew Hempfield. No. 6 Penn-Trafford drew Penn Hills. No. 7 Gateway drew North Hills. No. 8 Bethel Park drew North Allegheny, the three-time defending champion.
“There are really no weak teams there,” Novak said. “The WPIAL did a great job.”
A year ago, Penn-Trafford was the only higher-seeded Class AAAA team to lose in the first round. The No. 6 Warriors lost to No. 11 Central Catholic, 30-27.
This year, the eight home teams might find more resistance.
Undefeated conference champions Upper St. Clair, Central Catholic and McKeesport hold the top three seeds. Seeded fourth was Woodland Hills (7-2), a preseason favorite before losses to Upper St. Clair and McKeesport in the first two weeks. The Wolverines have since won seven straight to reclaim their contender status. They've reached Heinz Field in two of the past three seasons.
“They're one of the better teams in the league,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperovicz said, “but we're not treating this like a bowl game. We're not just happy to be here. We're looking to win and move on to the next round.”
Both teams have rather young lineups that grew each week. Pine-Richland starts just three seniors and has only five on its roster. About half of Woodland Hills' lineup is seniors, but the Wolverines also use five sophomores.
“They had to grow and develop through the year,” Novak said. “We have a saying around Woodland Hills football that to achieve you must endure. ... We learned from the losses and tried to get better from them.”
The Wolverines outscored their final three opponents, 95-16.
“Every week they've improved,” Novak said.
Woodland Hills likely will be without 1,000-yard rusher Miles Sanders, who has an injured ankle. The sophomore halfback has 14 touchdowns. Without him, the Wolverines would rely more on senior quarterback Harry Randall, who has rushed for 13 touchdowns and thrown eight.
“(Randall) has the heart of a lion,” Novak said.
When Sanders missed Week 8, junior Art Thompkins scored four touchdowns, including a 79-yard pass from Randall.
“You've got to watch out for the big play,” Kasperowicz said. “They don't throw often, but when they do, they seem to always have a big play.”
No team in Class AAAA has more offensive yards than Pine-Richland, which has 3,703. The Rams throw often but use a balanced attack. They've passed for 1,906 yards and rushed for 1,797. Junior quarterback Ben DiNucci ranks fourth among WPIAL passers and D'ondre Gastion ranks second among receivers with 52 catches. Junior Connor Slomka has 1,095 rushing yards and 15 TDs.
“They do a lot of different things,” Novak said. “It's really hard to prepare for them. A lot of different formations, motions, a lot of different plays throwing and running the football. They're an exciting team to watch. We've got our hands full.”
Pine-Richland won, 26-7, when it visited the Wolvarena in 2011 with Kasperowicz as offensive coordinator.
In his first season as coach, Pine-Richland (5-4) finished fifth in the Quad North with three close losses on its record. The Rams held a fourth-quarter lead in a 43-25 loss to No. 5 Seneca Valley in Week 2. They missed a game-winning field goal in a 29-28 loss to No. 9 North Allegheny in Week 4. And their offense slumped near the end zone in a 7-0 loss to No. 10 North Hills in Week 8.
“We're a field goal and a touchdown from being probably the No. 6 or 7 seed in the tournament,” Kasperowicz said. “We realize we're close. But we also realize that in these big games, you've got to make those plays if you want to be considered one of the top teams in the league.”