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West Mifflin to face first-round challenge from Moon

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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Thomas Jefferson's Chase Winovich tries to bring down West Mifflin running back Jimmy Wheeler during the third quarter Friday, Oct. 25, 2013, at West Mifflin.
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Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 10:27 p.m.

With his prized running back ailing from the wear-and-tear of the team's first loss of the year, West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo remained optimistic that the Titans would recover in time for the postseason.

Braszo was counting on senior Jimmy Wheeler, the WPIAL's leading rusher, to return to form for the start of the WPIAL playoffs this weekend after Wheeler was limited to a season-low 13 yards in a 35-0 loss to Thomas Jefferson on Friday, spoiling the Titans' chances for an undefeated regular season.

Wheeler, who needed 142 yards to break the WPIAL regular-season rushing record, was held out of a portion of the game with concussion-like symptoms, but test results were negative and he was practicing this week with the Titans.

“He did come out of the game as a precaution, but he didn't have a concussion,” Braszo said. “We're being careful with him. We're hopeful.”

On Monday, West Mifflin (8-1) was awarded a fifth seed in the Class AAA bracket and, with or without Wheeler, will face 12th-seeded Moon (6-3) at home in the first round on Friday night. The winner will play either fourth-seeded Franklin Regional or 13th-seeded Montour on Nov. 8 in the quarterfinals.

Behind the powerful running of Wheeler, West Mifflin reeled off eight consecutive victories before being shut out by Thomas Jefferson. With or without Wheeler, look for the Titans to stick to the ground game.

“We're practicing and preparing like we're going to be facing Jimmy Wheeler,” Moon coach Mark Washington said. “We're going against a great running back and a great program. He's not the only great player they have. West Mifflin has a strong program, and it will be an honor to play against them.”

It is Moon's first playoff appearance since 2006.

“It's not just about having confidence,” Washington said. “It's also about going out there and competing. We want to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Moon's sizeable offensive line is a concern to Braszo, whose team was manhandled by the size of Thomas Jefferson's front in the previous game.

“They're a strong team,” Braszo said of Moon. “They're a big team. They're a power team. It's going to come down to who can control the line of scrimmage. If we can do that, I think we'll be OK.”

Wheeler, who has gained 2,022 yards, won't be the only explosive running back in uniform. Moon senior Cole Blake rushed for 202 yards and three touchdowns in the Tigers' 35-21 victory over Montour on Friday, increasing his season total to 1,457.

Blake scored on runs on 9, 66 and 11 yards against the Spartans, while quarterback Aleksel Yaramus threw two touchdown passes, the second a 23-yarder to Kyle Bondi that put the Tigers ahead for good in the fourth quarter.

“It's a new season now,” Braszo said. “Our guys realize that. Hopefully, we'll come to play.”

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