Liotta, Petrishen represent AK-Valley at WPIAL football finals
Shawn Liotta has coached the Erie Explosion to back-to-back Continental Indoor Football League championships. He's become somewhat of a household name in arena football circles and is known for his mad scientist-like approach to offense.
Erie's coach plans to return and go for a three-peat, but he has spent his offseason coaching another explosion, in Clairton.
Some say Liotta likes to think outside the box. When he took over Clairton's offense, he had to think outside the walls of indoor football. But the offensive coordinator, who grew up in Springdale and lives in Lower Burrell, did just fine making the transition. In the process, he found a way to soup up an already fast unit.
Nobody has been able to stop Liotta's hurry-up spread since. It has helped to propel the Bears (12-0) into Friday's 11 a.m. WPIAL Class A championship game against Avonworth (11-1) at Heinz Field.
“I am so thankful for the opportunity coach (Wayne) Wade gave me here,” Liotta said. “He gave me full control of the offense. They were very successful before I got here, but they were willing to make changes. It has been a lot of fun. What we've been able to do is unprecedented.”
Already somewhat awestruck by Clairton's recent exploits, Liotta assumed the offensive reins and did the unthinkable: He took an offense the Bears had used under former coach Tom Nola that produced 66 straight wins, six WPIAL titles and four PIAA championships, and politely ran it through the shredder.
“It was a total overhaul,” Liotta said. “Nothing is the same. It's no-huddle, fast tempo. Nobody snaps it faster than we do. We play as fast as the refs let us.”
Clairton has scored 788 points — second most in Pennsylvania history to the 2007 Jeannette team's 860. The Bears average 65.7 points per game. Their lowest point total of the season came last week in a 48-42 semifinal win over Neshannock.
The snap-and-go offense, which uses a mix of runs and passes, has produced more than 500 yards a game.
“Our goal is to win a championship. It's not about how many points you put up,” Liotta said. “The kids have really enjoyed running it. I have had more fun coaching high school football than ever before.”
Liotta, who once had a hand in structuring Springdale's offense, is only 34 years old, but he has had numerous coaching stops, navigating the left side of the state.
He's been at Springdale, Duquesne University, Lion Mountain, West Shamokin, Yough and McKeesport. For the past nine years, he has also coached the Explosion.
Liotta said Clairton's scheme has components from all of the places that he has coached, including the arena team.
“We're so fast-paced,” Liotta said. “Some of the plays have the same names (as the Erie team). We used code words, numbers and colors (to call in plays). We have had 10 different players score touchdowns.
“Our goal this season is to play 16 games.”
Liotta won't be the only A-K Valley presence at Heinz Field. Central Catholic senior Johnny Petrishen, a Lower Burrell native, will go for his second straight WPIAL Class AAAA title. The Vikings (11-1) take on Pine-Richland (12-0) in the 2 p.m. game.
Pine-Richland beat Central, 48-28, in Week 8.
Petrishen is being recruited as a safety and has more than 30 Division I scholarship offers — Pitt and Virginia are his frontrunners. But he became an offensive threat last week when he took direct snaps out of the wildcat. He ran for 211 yards on 17 carries in a 52-34 semifinal win over Penn-Trafford.
“It reminded me of my old Burrell days playing for coach (Kevin) Horwatt,” Petrishen said.
Petrishen only had seven carries coming into the game.
Last year, he helped the Vikings top Woodland Hills, 27-7, in the title game. They reached the PIAA final but lost to St. Joseph's Prep, 35-10.
Petrishen (6-foot-3, 200) said this year's WPIAL title would mean more to him.
“This year I think people doubted us a lot more,” he said. “Last year we were more of a powerhouse, but we lost a lot of our big names. We want to leave a mark on our (senior) class. There would be no better way to go out.”
Other local ties to Friday's finals:
• Former Ford City and NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte helps coach Central Catholic. His son, Gunnar, is a junior backup quarterback. His sophomore son, Gabe, is a lineman. Another Central player is junior receiver/defensive back Jake McKee, who is from Plum. His father, Jeff, played at Arizona State.
• Former Fox Chapel and Indiana (Pa.) standout lineman Tim Sasson is an assistant at Pine-Richland, where Knoch graduate Josh Shoop is the athletic director.
• In Class AAA, former Ford City and Robert Morris star quarterback Tim Levcik is an assistant coach at West Allegheny (11-1), which plays Central Valley (12-0) in the last of the four games, around 8 p.m.
• A local father-son combo, Mike Jarosinski and Mike Jarosinski Jr., will officiate the Class AA game between South Fayette (12-0) and Aliquippa (12-0) set for 5 p.m.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.