Legendary players, moments defined Alle-Kiski Valley’s greatest teams
The Alle-Kiski Valley has been blessed with some great high school football teams since the sport was first introduced in 1898 when the original Apollo High School first fielded a team. As the A-K Valley starts another season, here’s a look back at the Top 5:
1943 Aspinwall Cavaliers
The team had the three u’s — undefeated, untied and unscored upon.
Aspinwall played its home games at the western end of the Highland Park Bridge, where the field now is divided into two youth baseball fields. The Cavaliers rolled through nine regular season opponents, keeping all out of the end zone.
Aspinwall punched its ticket to the WPIAL finals with a 26-0 victory over rival Etna.
In the Class A tile game against Pitcairn, the Railroaders drove to the Aspinwall 2-yard line, but were turned back, keeping the shutout mark intact, 24-0.
Aspinwall outscored opponents 245-0 in 10 games.
One of the team’s top players was Lou “Sonny” Yakopec, later a star with two Harmarville Hurricanes national championship soccer teams and was Harmar Township’s police chief.
1947 New Kensington Red Raiders
After winning the WPIAL title in 1946, Ken Hi — as the high school was affectionately known — came back for more.
A new stadium, currently used by Valley High School, opened with a 26-0 victory over Central Catholic. Vince Pisano scored the first touchdown in the new facility.
The Red Raiders finished undefeated and would play neighboring Har-Brack for WPIAL honors.
More than 15,000 Thanksgiving Day fans braved chilly temperatures at Forbes Field to watch Ken High (10-0) dismantle the Tigers, 28-0. Willie Thrower, who became the NFL’s first black quarterback in 1953, completed 12 of 19 passes for two touchdowns, ran for another TD and intercepted two Har-Brack passes.
The 10 wins were part of a 26-game unbeaten streak.
Ironically, the regular season rivalry between the two schools was halted when administrators felt the games had become too fierce.
1953 Har-Brack Tigers
Har-Brack rolled through their first six opponents by an average margin of 31 points. The Tigers were led by their Triple Terror backfield of Cookie Gilchrist, Jim Powell and Barry Johnson.
In Week Seven, Har-Brack and Vandergrift matched 6-0 records before nearly 7,000 fans at Har-Brack Stadium. The Tigers blitzed the Blue Lancers, 68-33. Gilchrist had one of the best big-game nights in local history, scoring five touchdowns and seven extra points.
After defeating Rochester, 35-19, Har-Brack gained a spot in the WPIAL finals against Donora.
The two teams battled to a scoreless tie at Pitt Stadium before 11,589.
Powell looked to score on a 67-yard run, but he was ruled out of bounds at the Dragons 24-yard line. Films later showed he stayed in bounds. Gilchrist missed a 40-yard field goal with time running out, and the Tigers settled for a 9-0-1 mark.
1971 Kiski Area Cavaliers
With just two returning starters from a team that finished the previous season as the Class AAA runners-up, not much was expected from the Cavaliers.
Instead, Kiski Area rolled through the regular season, scoring an average of 38 points per game over the first six games, setting up a showdown with similarly undefeated Hempfield. Before a crowd of 9,500 at Davis Field — widely believed to be the largest crowd ever at that facility — the Cavaliers slipped by the Spartans, 13-8.
After finishing the regular season undefeated, the WPIAL changed its format, allowing all undefeated and untied teams to engage in a playoff.
Kiski Area and Penn Hills were tied, 6-6, late in the game. At that time, if a game ended in a tie, the team with the most yardage would advance, but Kiski Area’s Joe Stone booted a 25-yard field goal with 37 seconds left to give the Cavaliers the win.
A 16-8 victory over Thomas Jefferson gave the Cavaliers (12-0) the WPIAL title. With no PIAA (state) playoffs, the team was rated tops in the state by the Saylor Rankings. The St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press had a national ranking of No. 5 for Kiski Area. At No. 3 was E.C. Williams of Arlington, Va. — the team immortalized in the movie “Remember the Titans.”
1986 Burrell Bucs
The only team to ever shut out all three opponents in the WPIAL playoffs, Burrell won the Class AA crown with a 13-0 record.
Things didn’t look promising early on when top running back Rob Hrivnak was injured. But in stepped sophomore David Beal, who filled in admirably with 1,140 yards and 15 touchdowns.
In the regular season finale, the Bucs defeated archrival Valley, 36-21, to clinch the Allegheny Conference title before 6,112 fans, the largest crowd in Buccaneer Stadium history.
In the playoff opener, Burrell defeated heavily favored New Brighton, 19-0. Safety Tom Hornack tied a state record with five pass interceptions — a record that still stands.
The Bucs blanked South Allegheny in the semifinals at Jeannette, 14-0.
In the title game at Three Rivers Stadium, a 30-yard field goal by Rich Marriott lifted Burrell to a 3-0 victory and the third WPIAL title in school history.
Honorable mention: 1953 Leechburg Blue Devils; 1940 Tarentum Redcats.
George Guido is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.