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Clairton football team carving own niche

| Tuesday, June 24, 2014, 12:56 a.m.
Ronald Vezzani Jr. | For the Daily News
Clairton quarterback Aaron Mathews tries to avoid the grasp of Chartiers-Houston's A. J. Meyers during a game Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, at Neil C. Brown Stadium.

This is not the Clairton football team that had national media outlets gravitating to a summit where Neil C. Brown Stadium stands during a captivating 66-game winning streak covering parts of five seasons.

To this group, that was another life, even as it kept the streak alive in 2013 for three more games.

This team is a collection of its own, many of its members having endured a dreaded game that resulted in the end of a Pennsylvania record for consecutive victories with a 42-24 loss to Monessen on Sept. 20, 2013, on that very hilltop field.

That 2013 Clairton squad came away with a 10-2 record in spite of it, losing again only to Chartiers-Houston, 24-19, in the WPIAL Class A semifinals to end the Bears' season and snap a string of five WPIAL championships.

There would be no trip to the PIAA title game for the first time in six years (Clairton lost to Steelton-Highspire in 2008 before claiming four consecutive Class A state championships from 2009-12).

“Last year, we tripped up a few times. We were young,” said Clairton's Ryan Williams, a senior who is expected to take over the quarterbacking duties full time in 2014 after sharing the spot with junior Aaron Mathews a year ago.

The 6-foot-5 Mathews is being recruited by major colleges as a wide receiver and likely will see action there almost exclusively under Wayne Wade, the Clairton native who begins his second stint as coach of the Bears the departure of Tom Nola to Class AAA Gateway.

Wade lives and breathes Clairton football — he quarterbacked the Bears to a WPIAL title in 1989, coached them for one season to an unspectacular 4-5 record in 2001 before Nola's arrival, and was Nola's defensive coordinator from 2010-13 after spending one season as a volunteer assistant to him.

Wade was able to spend some quality time with his team on Sunday at the Pitt seven-on-seven passing camp and said he became amused when one of his players approached him after the Bears lost to Kirkland (Ohio) in the championship round of the double-elimination event.

“He said, ‘Coach, this is double elimination. We were undefeated, and now we only have one loss, and they had one loss already. Why can't we play them again?' ” Wade said, explaining the player's concern.

Because, Wade said, the camp guidelines don't apply the double-elimination format to an unbeaten team in the semifinals and championship rounds. In other words, it's winner-take-all.

“But you know,” he said, “that's what I love about this team. This next group is ready to go. We have talent. It's always been there. It's a matter of learning to play together.”

Wade, who spent six seasons with Milwaukee of the Arena Football League, and new offensive coordinator Shawn Liotta, who led Erie to the past two Continental Indoor Football League championships, have been teaching the idea of matchups.

“For me, playing Arena football gave a different approach,” Wade said. “Coach Liotta has the same approach. It's a matchup game. That's all it is. Except now, we're going outdoors.”

That seven-on-seven experience at Pitt over the weekend let everyone know tiny Clairton wasn't turning into a pushover after the long winning streak became history last season. Among its victims at the camp were Class AAAA schools Central Catholic, Penn Hills and Woodland Hills, and Class AAA Thomas Jefferson and Montour.

Clairton previously competed at the Pine-Richland seven-on-seven passing camp and came away with six victories without a loss.

“It was best against best for the most part,” Wade said, referring to top line players. “We beat Fox Chapel and Pine-Richland, and we played Central Catholic twice. The only close game was against Pine-Richland.”

This Clairton team, which has been realigned alongside past perennial Class AA powers Greensburg Central Catholic and Jeannette in the Class A Eastern Conference, comes into this year with more experience. Fifteen seniors are back from the 10-2 team that, arguably, overachieved.

“We only had three seniors last year,” Wade said, “and two of them were first-year players.”

A year later, Williams surmised that the experience of winning 10 games in 2013 will make a sizable imprint on the Clairton program's push for another winning streak.

“We all mature,” he said. “We all get older and stronger and wiser. Most of us have been together for a long time.”

Williams was a special teams player as a freshman and sophomore on those great Clairton teams during the streak.

“We all kind of knew what it was like playing on the varsity level,” he said. “Those older guys from the other teams come back and help all the time now. They're like our big brothers. They help us out a lot.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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