Underdogs Highlands, Apollo-Ridge enter quarterfinals motivated
Highlands and Apollo-Ridge were the only Alle-Kiski Valley football teams to win their playoff openers on Friday and — no surprise here — both will face daunting challenges in the quarterfinals.
If they're looking for motivation, the teams can point to another pair of local teams that faced similar uphill climbs in the second round but prevailed.
The message, provided by the 2011 Knoch Knights and 2003 Springdale Dynamos, is clear: It can be done.
Class AAA No. 7 seed Highlands (7-3) edged No. 10 New Castle, 24-19, to set up a showdown with No. 2 Thomas Jefferson (10-0), a team that's reached the semifinals 15 times in the past 16 seasons.
“Our linebackers were very active and ran to the ball,” Highlands coach Sam Albert said about Friday's win. “Offensively, our kids made some plays. We seem to play as well as our competition. You saw that against Franklin Regional and Indiana (too).”
Highlands held New Castle to 2 yards rushing.
“We went man coverage, and we did what we do best: letting our linebackers control the game,” Albert said.
Doing the same to Thomas Jefferson, which has allowed exactly six points in its last four games, will come with resistance.
But harken back three seasons, when Knoch — albeit a lower-seeded team at No. 3 — blasted Thomas Jefferson, 31-9, in the quarters, showing that the Greater Allegheny Conference wasn't going to stand for bullying.
“I am proud of our conference,” Albert said. “There are eight teams left, and four of them are ours. I say it year in and year out: Our conference is one of the better ones.”
In Class A, No. 9 Apollo-Ridge (8-2) won a playoff game for just the second time in school history, downing No. 8 Beth-Center, 42-28.
“We had so many different kids, unheralded kids, make plays in that game,” Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba said. “It's been amazing how we've had different kids stepping up. For two weeks in a row we've had kids who hadn't played all year long make some major plays.”
Now, the Vikings get No. 1 seed Sto-Rox (10-0), which lost to Clairton in last season's title game. Sto-Rox is led by quarterback Lenny Williams, the WPIAL's all-time passing leader.
“Our kids have to believe they have the opportunity to win this game,” Skiba said. “We think we have enough skill guys to do that.”
Quarterfinal sites in all classifications have yet to be announced.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.