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Knoch, West Mifflin matchup shaping up to be 1st-round classic

| Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Knoch's Mike Cunningham (No. 21) and Luke Kroneberg (No. 82) combine to tackle Hampton's Jon Nigro (No. 1) during their game at Hampton High School on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

No. 10-seeded Knoch and No. 7 West Mifflin find themselves near the middle of the WPIAL Class AAA playoff bracket, but their game has the potential to be anything but a ho-hum, middle-of-the-road matchup.

Consider that Knoch (7-2) dominated No. 2 Mars, 21-0, on Oct. 12.

And West Mifflin (8-1) nearly went undefeated but lost to No. 1 Thomas Jefferson, 28-14, in last week's regular-season finale.

Those accomplishments belong at the top of résumés in bold print and make Knoch's visit to West Mifflin at 7:30 p.m. Friday one of the more intriguing first-round meetings in a deep Class AAA field. It also will be televised on Root Sports.

West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo considers Knoch, last year's WPIAL AAA runner-up, an extremely challenging first-round opponent — especially for a team that fell short of 9-0 by losing a close game to the top-seeded team.

“We weren't real pleased (with the pairings),” Braszo said. “We know Knoch is a good football program that has had success. They beat Mars. That's a tough first-round game.”

Knoch coach Mike King also thinks West Mifflin could end up being much better than its seeding seems to indicate.

“I think West Mifflin gave Thomas Jefferson everything they could handle,” Knoch coach Mike King said.

Knoch defeated Mars following close losses to Hampton (20-17) and Franklin Regional (23-13). Propelled by their defense, the Knights turned heads around the WPIAL with their performance against high-scoring Mars, which is averaging 37.7 points per game.

Knoch's 3-5 defense features senior outside linebacker Mike Cunningham.

“We were coming off two losses, and it hit us that we needed to pick it up,” Cunningham said. “Defensively, we always get up. We love hitting people. We wanted to make a statement in that game. If the team comes out and plays like that, we can do well.”

Both teams lean heavily on their ground attack and feature speedy ball carriers, but Knoch has had more success passing.

West Mifflin junior running back Jimmy Wheeler, one of the top rushers in the WPIAL, has collected more than 1,600 yards and scored 21 touchdowns. Senior Derrick Fulmore is a dual-threat quarterback who has passed and rushed for more than 500 yards.

Knoch senior running back Ben Tackett has rushed for 1,085 yards on 181 carries, caught 12 passes for 193 yards, and tallied 19 touchdowns. Meanwhile, senior quarterback Dakota Bruggeman has completed 62 of 130 passes for 1,057 yards and 10 touchdowns.

West Mifflin is scoring 37.8 and allowing 12.2 points per game. Knoch hasn't been as prolific on offense (28.3 ppg) but has been slightly better on defense (10.2 ppg).

“I think we've played well defensively all season,” King said. “I think the kids are up to the challenge.”

Paul Kogut is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at pkogut@tribweb.com or 724-224-2696.

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