Top-seeded Sto-Rox, No. 9 Apollo-Ridge have dynamic offensive capabilities
Apollo-Ridge coach John Skiba has heard from more than a couple of fellow coaches, including some in his own conference, that his Vikings match up well with top-seeded Sto-Rox and that they have a legitimate chance to win.
No, really. It's true.
Apollo-Ridge might be the No. 9 seed in the WPIAL Class A playoffs and have only two playoff wins in school history, but lately the Vikings seem to be treated with a unique form of admiration — perhaps a way for opponents to finally give them their just due.
“Apollo-Ridge is not a team you want to see in the playoffs,” Avonworth coach Duke Johncour said the night of the playoff pairings meeting. “They're dangerous.”
The Vikings (8-2) share several traits with Sto-Rox (10-0) — not just the team nickname.
Like Sto-Rox, the WPIAL runner-up to Clairton the last two years, Apollo-Ridge also has a big-play offense with multiple playmakers who will be on display Friday in the quarterfinals at Deer Lakes.
Both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks. Sto-Rox senior Lenny Williams is the WPIAL's all-time leading passer who has piled up 7,850 career yards in a variety of ways, from dump-off screens to home-run bombs. This season, he's completed 70 percent of his throws for 2,050 yards and 31 touchdowns. He's rushed for 347 yards and seven scores.
Apollo-Ridge senior Jesse Zelonka doesn't have the brow-raising career numbers, but his season stats aren't shabby. He's thrown for 1,466 yards and 22 scores, while running for 742 and six TDs.
“We're very similar teams, we run a lot of the same stuff,” Sto-Rox coach Dan Bradley said. “We both use a 3-4 defense and we have big-play people on both sides.
“Zelonka throws a great deep ball, and guys like (Tre) Tipton and (Alex) Smith go up and get it. They have good ball skills and size.”
Sto-Rox averages 45.9 points and Apollo-Ridge 40.2, prompting many to anticipate a shootout.
“Wouldn't be surprised,” Skiba said.
Sto-Rox has a variety of playmakers, including receiver Mallory Claybourne, who has 34 catches for 890 yards and 13 TDs. He also is a dangerous kick and punt returner.
Senior running back Brendan Blair has rushed for a team-high 636 yards and 13 scores.
“You have to give props to (Williams),” Apollo-Ridge senior offensive tackle Cody Joyner said. “If you overpursue him, he's past you. But we think we can get to him.”
Skiba knows both teams can score quickly, resulting in clock stoppages and more time for the other to possess the ball. But he thinks a points barrage could be what leads to an upset and his team's first trip to the semifinals.
“It will be nice to get 3 and outs so we can jump out,” Skiba said. “I like the big plays. I am not a ball-control guy. I want to put up points.”
Williams will face a stern test in Apollo-Ridge's secondary. Junior Tre Tipton has five interceptions and freshman Duane Brown four.
“Once they see what our secondary can do, they might want to consider changing their minds (about passing),” Zelonka said. “The thing about (Williams) is that he can extend the play. They're a lot like us. It's like looking in the mirror. I think it will come down to who is more explosive. Who has the better weapons?”
Apollo-Ridge plans to start junior Alex Smith in the defensive backfield. Smith has played sparingly on defense this season, but having him there gives another sure-handed defensive back for Williams to think about.
“They have a lot of skill guys, but we think we have more powerful linemen,” Joyner said. “We feel like we can stop their running game.”
Sto-Rox is known for spreading the field with five wide receiver sets, giving Williams the freedom to sling it or take off.
“When their wideouts are covered, that gives (Williams) space to run,” Skiba said. “It's definitely an uphill battle.”
Clogging the running lanes for Williams will force him to throw into cluttered spots. At least that's Apollo-Ridge's wave-length.
“We're very confident,” Apollo-Ridge senior linebacker Dom Schrecengost said. “We know they have a lot of athletes, but we've been working on a lot of man coverage, and we'll have a linebacker spying him.”
Sto-Rox has allowed 113 points, with 31 coming against Neshannock and 30 against Western Beaver.
“They're going to blitz like crazy, like they did against Clairton,” Skiba said. “They'll be coming at us. As long as we weather the storm for the first couple of minutes, we should be fine.”
Sto-Rox isn't shy about one form of leverage that it has.
“I'd like to think our advantage is experience in the playoffs,” Bradley said. “We return a lot of kids who lost in the title game last year. If there is any advantage, it's that we have guys who have been there.”