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WPIAL to play 4 of 6 football title games at Heinz Field

| Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, 3:24 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Thomas Jefferson's Braden Pahanish holds the WPIAL Class AAA championship trophy with his teammates after defeating Central Valley Saturday, Nov. 28. 2015, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Aliquippa's Kaezon Pugh hoists the WPIAL Class AA championship trophy after defeating South Fayette on Saturday, Nov. 28. 2015, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Central Catholic's Rashad Wheeler celebrates after defeating Penn-Trafford, 24-17, in the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game Saturday, Nov. 28. 2015, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Clairton’s Lamont Wade (38) and Kijafi Fuqua celebrate after defeating Jeannette in the WPIAL Class A championship game last November at Heinz Field. The venue will host four championship games next season. “I understand it, but I enjoy playing at Heinz Field,” Clairton coach Wayne Wade said of the WPIAL’s decision to have lower classifications play at another site.

The WPIAL will take four football championships to Heinz Field this fall, but two classifications won't go.

WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said Wednesday that the four largest classifications — 6A, 5A, 4A and 3A — will play their championships at the stadium Nov. 18. The two smallest classes will play a week later at a different, undetermined site.

The move is in response to the PIAA's expansion to six classifications.

“We've said from the beginning we didn't want to change,” O'Malley said. “We wanted to be able to take everybody. We can't.”

As a result, small-school contenders such as 12-time champion Clairton won't have a chance to reach Heinz Field in the next two years. Clairton won a WPIAL title at the North Shore stadium in eight of the past 10 seasons.

“I understand it, but I enjoy playing at Heinz Field,” Clairton coach Wayne Wade said. “If we win the WPIAL championship, (playing it elsewhere) is not going to take away from us being WPIAL champs. But there is a mystique behind playing the WPIAL championships at Heinz Field, and I know the kids really look forward to and enjoy that.”

The Class 2A and A finals will be Nov. 25 or 26 at another venue, with Highmark Stadium on the South Side or Robert Morris' Joe Walton Stadium among potential options.

“I think Robert Morris would be the best bet,” Wade said. “Even though they only have one side, there's a lot of seating, and it gives you a college atmosphere on a college campus, and the locker rooms are nice.”

The state playoff schedule determined which schools to exclude, not school size, O'Malley said. The three largest classes enter the state playoff brackets in the quarterfinal round. The three smallest enter in the state semifinals.

“This wasn't about the smallest,” O'Malley said. “This was about when you could fit in.”

However, the WPIAL used a little creativity to form a four-game slate at Heinz Field.

The four largest football classes will have an eight-team WPIAL playoff field. The two smallest will maintain the current 16-team bracket. The WPIAL could have left Class 3A with a 16-team bracket and played that championship with Class 2A and A.

Instead, the Class 3A champion will have a bye week after the WPIAL final.

“When they said they couldn't play all six games at Heinz Field, I figured and envisioned that Single-A and Double-A would get screwed,” Wade said, “because we don't bring as many people to the games. … Is it fair that those four divisions get to play at Heinz Field every year and the smallest two don't? It doesn't seem fair, but if that's the only way they can get it to work you have to accept that.”

The WPIAL could rotate the Heinz Field classifications after 2017 and include Class 2A or A instead of 3A, O'Malley said, but that would require the chosen class to reduce its WPIAL playoff qualifiers from 16 to eight.

“Availability and affordability” prevent the WPIAL from using Heinz Field on two weekends, O'Malley said.

“It's a grass surface,” he said. “The Steelers have been so very good. I don't know what they'll do this year. They typically have resurfaced the field after we're done, so we're just lucky to be able to get in there one time.”

The WPIAL also decided that each football team will have the option next season to convert its second scheduled scrimmage into a nonconference game of its choice. The WPIAL still will schedule only nine regular-season games, but will let each team add a 10th in “Week Zero” under a recent PIAA rule change.

For safety reasons, O'Malley said, the WPIAL prefers two scrimmages.

“We're not going to force you to do that,” he said. “… If you want that game, they gave you that option.”

O'Malley spoke Wednesday at the DoubleTree in Green Tree, where the WPIAL steering committees for all sports assembled for the first time since the PIAA expanded to six classifications. The committees met to divide sports into sections for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.

The new alignments will be revealed Monday at the WPIAL Board of Directors meeting.

Football will have two conferences apiece in Class 6A, 5A and 4A, with four teams from each conference qualifying for the playoffs. Class 3A, 2A and 1A will each have three conferences. Class 3A will qualify the top two teams from each conference plus two wild cards. Class 2A and A will qualify the top five from each conference plus one wild card.

O'Malley said football schedules will be available by March 1.

In other sports:

• Boys and girls basketball will continue to qualify the top four teams and ties from each section. Boys basketball will have three sections in all classes except Class 3A, which has four. Girls basketball will have three sections in all but Class 5A, which has four. Championship sites have not been set.

• Boys and girls soccer will have four sections in all classes except Class 2A girls, which has three. The top four teams and ties will qualify for the playoffs.

• Girls volleyball will have four sections in Class 4A, 3A and A, with five sections in Class 2A. The top four teams and ties qualify for the playoffs.

• Baseball and softball will have three sections in all classes except Class 2A softball, which has four. The top four teams and ties qualify for the playoffs.

Staff writer Kevin Gorman contributed. Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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