Gorman: North's title a 'thrill' for Rooney
North Catholic's most famous alumnus shook hands with and congratulated the Trojans on winning the first WPIAL football championship in school history.
That they won it at Heinz Field made it even more special to Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, a 1950 North Catholic graduate.
“That was really terrific,” Rooney said. “It made me think about 60 years ago, when I played and we beat Central in the Catholic League championship in 1949.”
In a Western Pennsylvania prep football tradition since 1986, Rooney's Steelers hosted all four WPIAL football finals Saturday.
This was the first time, however, that his alma mater played for a league title. In what some joked as the WPIAL's worst nightmare, North and Central Catholic started the day by winning back-to-back championships. It ended with South Fayette playing spoiler and West Allegheny coach Bob Palko setting a record.
North Catholic coach Bob Ravenstahl invited Rooney and Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, a '75 North alum, into the locker room after the Trojans' 14-0 victory over Sto-Rox in the WPIAL Class A final.
“I just want to say,” Rooney said, “that you carrying on this tradition gives me a thrill.”
A thrill for the school now called Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, which starts its 75th and final year in the city before moving to a Cranberry campus in August.
“This is the last year on Troy Hill,” North Catholic senior fullback-defensive tackle Jarred Fragapane said, “so it might as well be the first year to win the WPIAL.”
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A Cranberry resident who contemplated attending North Catholic before construction delayed the opening of its new campus, Dan O'Neill stood in the locker room amid Central Catholic's celebration and pondered a possibility.
He would have won a WPIAL title either way.
A Central alum who married a North graduate, Vikings coach Terry Totten knows that the changing landscape could affect both football programs in the future. North Catholic might draw North Hills students like O'Neill away from Central, which could gain North Siders who don't want to leave the city. That didn't stop Totten from donating $100 to North Catholic.
“There's enough to go around,” Totten said.
O'Neill, a senior left guard, wouldn't change a thing. Not after his Vikings beat Woodland Hills, 27-7, to win their fourth WPIAL Quad-A title since 2003.
“It's the greatest feeling in the world,” O'Neill said. “For four years, it's all we talked about. We all came together from different places. It's unreal.”
Unreal for his whole family. O'Neill's father, Bob, played for Seton-La Salle when Totten was an assistant coach there to Greg Gattuso. His mother, Kathie, was a cheerleader when the Rebels won the 1990 WPIAL Class AAA title at Three Rivers Stadium.
Now, she was cheering for her son from the stands at Heinz Field.
“At the time, you thought it was the most exciting thing to happen to you,” Kathie O'Neill said. “I just remember that it was unbelievable, being on the field and thinking, ‘This is where the Steelers play.' It was so huge, thinking that we didn't even have our own stadium.
“When it's your son, it's way bigger, way better. You want it even more.”
Totten calls O'Neill “a tremendous story,” combining his father's toughness and his mother's smarts to work his way into the starting lineup this season.
Central called continuous power plays against Woodland Hills, having O'Neill pull to serve as lead blocker, and he took pride that the Vikings rushed for 250 yards on 49 carries and attempted only two passes all game.
Not to mention that he is playing for the same man who coached his father.
“It's funny because my dad said Coach Totten was the young, cool assistant and was milder,” said O'Neill, who has a 4.4 grade average. “He didn't know him the way I do. For me, he's just a leader. He knows how to win games.”
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So does Bob Palko, especially in WPIAL title games.
Palko was on that Seton-La Salle staff with Totten before returning to his alma mater and leading West Allegheny to unprecedented success.
When the finals ended before midnight, the 53-year-old Palko became the first coach in league history to win seven outright titles with a 16-6 win over Central Valley.
It's no accident Palko is 7-0 in WPIAL title games. The Indians are a reflection of Palko, who called the record a “humbling, humbling experience” and always attempts to deflect the credit.
“I try to to treat this team like my dad raised me, with tough love,” Palko said of his late father, Gil. “Be physical but respect the game.”
Afterward, Palko shared with his team a life lesson by hugging and kissing his mother, LaVerne.
“He won't admit it,” West Allegheny assistant Jim D'Amico said, “but the tradition of this program all starts with one guy.”
No surprise, then, that the team motto is the acronym INAM: It's Not About Me.
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A celebration was met with equal devastation.
When Connor Beck intercepted an Aliquippa pass to seal South Fayette's 34-28 victory over the Quips in the WPIAL Class AA final, Dravon Henry dropped to his knees at midfield.
“I was hurt because I knew after that interception that it was over,” said Henry, regarded as the state's top player. “Aliquippa is a hard place to live. Whatever is going on, whatever struggle you have, when you step on that football field there's a clear mind. I can't even describe what it means to put on this jersey. I knew it was my last time wearing the red and black jersey. I don't even want to take it off now.”
Where Henry's dreams of winning a third consecutive WPIAL championship were shattered, Beck's premonition came true. He scored the game-winning touchdown on a 19-yard reception with 2:48 remaining, then picked off the pass intended for Henry.
“I can't explain the feeling,” said Beck, who finished with five catches for 112 yards and the touchdown. “He's a great player who's going on to play at a major college. It means everything. It means the world.”
Beck, meantime, has no plans to play football in college. He wants to attend nursing school. The 6-foot, 175-pound senior didn't even practice all week because of a left hip flexor, yet had a vision Friday night that he would be the Lions' hero.
“I actually had a dream about ending the game with a pick — and that's what happened,” Beck said. “It's unbelievable.”
Or, as one man who calls Heinz Field home might say, he carried on a tradition that gives us a thrill.