Remaining WPIAL coaches comfortable with PIAA process
The WPIAL trophy had exchanged hands so often in the moments after West Allegheny's victory that it was coming apart. Not even the tiny football player's strong stiff-arm pose could protect it.
The Indians playfully avoided blame, including a lineman left holding the wobbly Class AAA prize while coach Bob Palko spoke. As his locker room talk ended, Palko pointed at the trophy.
“That (trophy) is awesome,” he said, “but the other one's better. The other one's way better.”
Palko would know. That other trophy, awarded in Hershey to the state champion, is a prize he held in 2001. But those same words could have been spoken from experience in the locker rooms of North Allegheny, Aliquippa and Clairton.
For the first time, all four WPIAL coaches bound for the state playoffs already have at least one PIAA championship game victory on their resume. North Allegheny's Art Walker has won twice, Aliquippa's Mike Zmijanac once as head coach, and Clairton's Tom Nola could win his fourth straight in Class A.
That experience should prove beneficial when the state playoffs begin Friday.
“I definitely think it will help all of us,” Walker said. “I remember my first experience, calling guys that had gone through it. I asked them, ‘What about this or what about that?' Because there's so many obstacles to overcome.”
Walker won his first PIAA title in 2004 at Central Catholic and his second two seasons ago at North Allegheny.
“Every week, you're going farther and farther away,” he said. “There's a lot of other distractions, other than the game. The deeper you go, the more you have to travel. You might have to stay in a hotel, like a college program. You have to learn how to manage those. If you have a game plan when that week arrives to face those obstacles, it does become easier.”
That includes avoiding the much-discussed letdown that could await WPIAL champions this weekend as they leave the hype of Heinz Field and return to high school stadiums. Most teams have handled it well. Over the past decade, WPIAL teams are 36-4 in their first PIAA playoff game after Heinz. That includes a 4-0 record last season when North Allegheny, Aliquippa and Clairton each won PIAA quarterfinal games, a feat they'll try to repeat Friday night.
“You've gone through that experience of playing at Heinz Field and the magnitude of the WPIAL championship, which is huge around here,” Walker said. “To understand the next step of the process, to go to the state championship, you know there's two more games and you have to face them one at a time.”
West Allegheny, making its second PIAA appearance in four years, drew the longest trip. It's District 10's turn to host the Class AAA quarterfinal, so the Indians will travel to Veterans Memorial Stadium in Erie. It's their first long trip in a while, but the old stadium isn't new to Palko and his staff.
“We're able to let them know what's going to happen,” Palko said. “We understand the way in which they do things in Erie and can tell them what to expect. It relaxes the kids a little more. Nothing's going to happen that's going to be a surprise.”
And there are surprises. Palko recalled his first time walking into Hersheypark Stadium and seeing the undersized locker rooms that force teams to split their rosters into two groups.
“You experience it the first time and say, ‘Oh man!' ” said Palko, whose team made three consecutive trips to Hershey, beginning in 1999. “Little things like that are really a big thing. People don't think they're a big thing, but with kids they are. If you've never been there and you don't understand it, you don't know what to do.”
Clairton should be the most prepared. The Bears are seeking their fifth straight trip to Hershey, where they've won the past three Class A titles.
“They say experience is the best teacher,” Nola said. “Not only have our coaches been there, but the players have been there. The senior class has been there every year.”
They'll visit Somerset on Friday, a place the team played two seasons ago. Their itinerary will be the same, which Nola likes. When they travel to Hershey, they always leave at the same time, eat at the same times and stay at the same hotel.
“I'm like that,” Nola said with a laugh. “I've got to do it the same way every time. They think I'm silly.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.