Gorman: Ross at center of West A's success
West Allegheny coach Bob Palko loves to keep opponents guessing, so you never know who is going to take snaps under center.
It could be a shotgun snap to quarterback Andrew Koester, to receiver Tory Delmonico in the pistol or a direct snap to running backs Chayse Dillon and Armand Dellovade.
What Palko didn't know at season's start was who would be making snaps at center. He would have never guessed that it would be senior Mike Ross.
“It's remarkable that we're sitting here undefeated with this kid, and he hasn't missed a down this season after missing every down last year,” Palko said before the Indians' 28-0 loss Friday to Erie Cathedral Prep in the PIAA Class AAA quarterfinals. “It's phenomenal to see.”
Ross was an unlikely and unheralded hero of West Allegheny's season, which saw the Indians go undefeated in winning their second staight WPIAL title.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder returned from a torn labrum that sidelined him last season to solidify the offensive line of a team that makes no secret of its run-first mentality.
“It's been a tough journey,” Ross said, “but I'm really glad about where it's brought me and how it's turned out.”
Ross was initially injured during a pass-protection drill in the summer before his junior season. When he hit a blocking dummy, he felt his left arm hyperextend and his shoulder pop out of its socket. He played through the discomfort until a lineman landed on him in a scrimmage and he felt a sharp pain. He was diagnosed with a posterior labrum tear.
Ross avoided surgery, instead going through six weeks of rehabilitation in an attempt to salvage his season. He returned for a junior varsity game against Central Valley. Halfway through the first quarter, the pain became too intense. This time he had no choice but to opt for surgery.
“It was tough to constantly see him be depressed because he couldn't play. We never could find out if he was a good player,” Palko said. “The grind is daily. He couldn't practice. He couldn't lift weights with his upper body. Everything he did was by himself.”
That dull pain of having to watch West Allegheny win the 2012 WPIAL championship from the sidelines was the worst part for Ross.
“To be brutally honest, it's terrible,” Ross said. “I've been playing since I was 6 years old and never had a serious injury. To have to sit out the entire season and not play the game I love was devastating. Not being in pads on Friday nights just killed me.”
Ross said he didn't feel safe to play again until a week into training camp. Even then, he was afraid of getting hurt again. The scariest part was when his scar tissue started breaking up.
“When they tell you it's just scar tissue breaking, something different is going through your head,” Ross said. “They're telling you you're going to be all right, but you're worried that everything you worked for is going to go away. You sit there and ice it and stretch it and hope everything they tell you is true.”
Ross, however, knew that he wanted to play football again. As down as he was, he never considered quitting.
“I did not want to stop playing at all,” Ross said. “I was going to do whatever it took to play. There was a time I asked myself, ‘Am I able to come back from this injury?' It was pretty bad, the pain I felt. I wasn't going to let that stop me, the fear of getting hurt again. I knew I wanted to play more than I was afraid of getting hurt.”
He had been a tight end and outside linebacker before his injury. Palko approached him about taking snaps at center, a position Ross hadn't played since eighth grade but one where the coach believed the student with a 3.9 grade average could help.
“Just the way he goes about it,” Palko said. “He's not a great athlete, but he's very cerebral, very intelligent for his age. He makes all of our line calls. He's solidified our line.”
Ross already had proven his toughness and continued to do so. It hasn't been easy. He snaps with his right hand and stuns the defender with his left. Every pop some sort of discomfort.
Now Ross is contemplating studying physical therapy. He sees how powerful it can be to impact someone's life by helping them return to health. And how the reward can outweigh the risk.
“I can honestly say it's everything I could have asked for,” Ross said. “I couldn't have asked for anything more than to be undefeated and WPIAL champions.”
As sweet as it was for Ross to be playing when West Allegheny won the WPIAL title, it wasn't the highlight of his senior season.
“My highlight is just being around my teammates,” he said. “We have had so much fun together. That's priceless. That's what I'm going to remember, the memories and bonds we formed. I wouldn't trade it for the world.”