Class AAAA breakdown: North Allegheny seeks historic 3-peat
When informed that Gateway was in consideration to start the season ranked No. 1 in WPIAL Class AAAA, Terry Smith immediately redirected that reward toward North Allegheny.
“You've got a two-time defending champion! You can't look anywhere but NA,” said Smith, whose Gators lost to the Tigers in the WPIAL semifinals last fall. “We'll gladly take Nos. 2 or 3, but until someone dethrones the champion ...”
While no one else wants to start the season atop the rankings, North Allegheny isn't shy about announcing its intentions to make WPIAL history.
The Tigers are hoping to become the first Class AAAA team to win three consecutive WPIAL championships, a feat of which five other schools fell short in the past three decades.
“I'd be crazy to tell you a goal of ours is to not try to get back down there to Heinz Field and win it again,” said North Allegheny coach Art Walker, who became the first Class AAAA coach to win back-to-back titles at two different schools (he coached Central Catholic in 2003-04).
“That's why we put so much in as coaches and ask our players to sacrifice. It's a goal, one that's in line with others: winning section, making playoffs comes first, but it's definitely there. It's a heck of a task. It's something that will be difficult.”
Walker knows how difficult, considering his father coached Mt. Lebanon to back-to-back titles in 1980-81 and '83-84. Gateway ('85-86), Upper St. Clair ('88-89) and Woodland Hills (2001-02) also won successive championships but couldn't pull off the trifecta.
North Allegheny has the talent to three-peat but will have to survive a brutal schedule that includes nonconference games at Mt. Lebanon and Gateway, as well as a Quad North slate that now includes Central Catholic.
“Going in as the favorites gives us more of a focus,” North Allegheny senior quarterback Mack Leftwich said. “We know everyone is going to be gunning for us, that we'll have a bull's-eye on our back every week. It's exciting, knowing we can do something no one's ever done, and we're looking forward to the challenge.”
Adding to the degree of difficulty is a WPIAL realignment of Class AAAA from four conferences to three.
Traditional powers Penn Hills and Woodland Hills move, along with Plum, to the Quad Central. They will play against Baldwin, Bethel Park, Canon-McMillan, Mt. Lebanon, Peters Township and Upper St. Clair.
“We open with Woodland Hills in a conference game — how much tougher can it be?” USC coach Jim Render said. “I don't think this alignment had any thought process to it.”
It has the potential for a rude introduction to the WPIAL for new Mt. Lebanon coach Mike Melnyk, who comes from Manheim Township in Lancaster.
His Blue Devils open with the aforementioned North Allegheny.
“I guess they wanted to make sure I knew what kind of caliber of competition there is across the league, so they put them all on my schedule,” Melnyk said.
“At some point, you can't worry about the competition. You just have to focus on the process. Sometimes their Xs are bigger than your Os, and there's not much you can do.”