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Heinz Field uncharted territory for 4 WPIAL football semifinalists

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 9:57 p.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
North Catholic's Adam Sharlow (7) runs the ball against Apollo-Ridge's Ben Gambella (30) on Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, at Lt. J.C. Stone Field in North Park.

An old church bell hung inside North Catholic's gym rings when one of its teams wins a WPIAL championship.

It's been rather quiet in the fall.

“When the boys won the basketball (title) a couple years ago, I believe they rung the bell,” football coach Bob Ravenstahl said, “and the girls have been pretty successful. But I don't even know if the kids on the (football) team realize that. I know it from being an alum from way back.”

To win a football championship, newly named Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic first must get there.

Despite a strong tradition that's decades old, the school never has reached a WPIAL football title game. The Trojans will have a chance to earn their first trip when they face Neshannock on Friday night in a Class A semifinal at Mars.

“It would be a big boost to the school,” said Ravenstahl, a 1972 North Catholic graduate, who recalls when the victory bell was rung by players for wins over Central Catholic. “It's a fun time of year because everybody takes a special interest.”

Neshannock understands the anticipation. The Lancers also have never reached a football championship game. So, regardless of who wins Friday, the victor will make school history.

Among a 16-team semifinal field that's already heavy with championship trophies, only North Catholic and Neshannock in Class A, Penn-Trafford in Class AAAA and Beaver in Class AA have not already played at Heinz Field at least once. While Clairton, Aliquippa and others might make it look rather easy, these four understand the difficulty.

“From my experience, it's awfully hard,” Ravenstahl said.

“Any time you get to this point in the year, all the teams left are very talented and really well coached,” Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio said.

Penn-Trafford's most-recent football championship game appearance was in 1997, when the Warriors lost to Upper St. Clair, 28-27. That also was the only time Penn-Trafford was in the semifinals.

Beaver, which last made the title game in 1982, reached the semifinals in 2002 and 2003. Standing in Beaver's path Friday will be Aliquippa. The Quips are seeking their sixth consecutive trip to Heinz Field.

“There are some very good teams out there,” Beltz said, “and if you want to go to the final, you've got to go through them.”

North Catholic has seen similar roadblocks.

This is the third time in Ravenstahl's eight seasons as coach that North Catholic has reached the semifinals, including a 34-20 loss to Sto-Rox in last season's semis. In 2009, the Trojans lost to Rochester, 14-7. The team watched video of last year's loss.

“We looked at the scoreboard and wanted to remember how we felt,” Ravenstahl said. “It's not a good feeling.”

Reigning Class A champion Clairton and runner-up Sto-Rox will meet Friday in the other semifinal. The winner will await either North Catholic or Neshannock on Nov. 23 at Heinz Field. North Catholic beat Neshannock, 21-14, in Week 8.

A year ago, Neshannock lost to Clairton, 37-7, in the semifinals. The Lancers have changed much since a 19-game losing streak a decade ago. They expect a fan following Friday similar to the one that made the long drive to Chartiers-Houston last week.

“We had a bunch of our fans that had to go sit on the Monessen side,” Mozzocio said. “The seating there couldn't hold us. To go to Heinz Field, I couldn't imagine how many people would make the trip down.”

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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