West A, Pine-Richland square off in AAA battle
Last season, West Allegheny entered the playoffs with two losses and played undefeated Hampton in the quarterfinals.
Hampton wanted respect after feeling it had gotten snubbed in the playoff pairings with a No. 5 seed. The Talbots thought they would find the respect they coveted against the defending champs, but West Allegheny blew out Hampton, 38-0, on the way to WPIAL and PIAA titles.
This season, the same scenario has unfolded, as undefeated Pine-Richland (10-0) takes on West Allegheny (8-2) in the WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinals at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at North Hills High School's Martorelli Stadium.
The ramifications from the Hampton blowout were that the Greater Allegheny conference still hadn't caught up to the Parkway and Big Seven conferences. And the Rams, the Greater Allegheny champs, know such will be the case again, if they lose to a West Allegheny team that finished third in the Parkway.
"We'll find out quickly how good we are," Pine-Richland coach Clair Altemus said. "We'll find out if we played a patty-cake schedule or not."
Pine-Richland quarterback Kevin McCabe feels his team is ready to take this step.
"You can't fear them, you have to respect them," McCabe said. "If you start fearing a team, you start playing tentative. I think Hampton last year, they feared them instead of respecting them. You have to respect them."
For Pine-Richland, this is the biggest game the program has played in since winning back-to-back WPIAL titles from 1969-70. Since then, the Rams have won just two playoff games, including last week's 56-20 victory over Peters Township.
In 1999, the Rams reached the quarterfinals before losing to Belle Vernon, 55-12. But this year, the Rams entered the playoffs with the No. 2 seed and an undefeated team that has set the school record for victories in a season with 10.
"I've had big games in my life," said Altemus, who coached Seneca Valley in a loss to Aliquippa in the 1989 WPIAL Class AAA championship game. "I think this is the biggest one at Pine-Richland. With the commitment of the school board and the community, it's probably the biggest one I've coached in."
And West Allegheny is in the unfamiliar role of underdog after winning three-consecutive titles and four in the past five seasons. Of course, quarterback Tyler Palko now is a freshman at Pitt, but this team has won four consecutive games since losing two games in three weeks to No. 5 Hopewell, 7-0, and No. 3 New Castle, 31-8.
"They've had a lot of naysayers and supposedly, the well was dry, but I've been watching them on tape for the past three days, and I can't see the weakness," Altemus said. "This is probably going to be the best team we've faced all year. I'm expecting a good ball game."
So is West Allegheny coach Bob Palko.
"They are a tremendous football team, and I don't know if we have what it takes to match them," Palko said. "They have a tremendous quarterback, maybe the best we've ever faced."
McCabe has been regarded as one of the WPIAL's best quarterbacks since throwing for more than 1,000 yards as a sophomore. But until this season, he hadn't won a playoff game. He and his teammates are out to the prove the skeptics wrong.
"You keep hearing about West A and you hear everybody tell you the Greater Allegheny is weak and West A is going to win because they've been there before," McCabe said. "We feel if we play our game, no one can stop us."
The 6-foot-3 Virginia recruit isn't full of hyperbole either. McCabe orchestrates one of the best passing games in the state. He's thrown for 1,741 yards and 24 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes. He's coming off his best performance of the season in which he completed 15 of 16 passes for 280 yards and five touchdowns. The one incompletion was a drop.
"He's so good," Palko said. "It's one of them deals where we're going to have to play the perfect game."
And Pine-Richland's running game isn't bad either. Junior Greg Hough has rushed for 1,482 yards and accounted for 20 touchdowns, including four through the air.
"It's a scary thing," Palko said. "Do you stop the run or do you stop the pass• They are so dangerous and can give any team trouble."
The offense averages more than 40 points per game and has the third-best point total in the WPIAL.
"The only thing that slowed them down was the weather at Knoch (a 14-7 Pine-Richland victory in wet conditions)," Palko said.
But the big difference this season has been a defense that gives up only eight points per game. The Rams have had a good offense since Altemus took over the program in 1997, but defense has been their Achilles' Heel.
"It's a change in attitude this year," said Hough, who starts at outside linebacker. Everyone is being more aggressive. Everyone likes hitting."
The change can be largely credited to first-year defensive coordinator Rob Densmore, who got promoted after leading Pine-Richland's ninth grade team to two undefeated season in which it didn't give up a point.
"He's brought with him a renewed enthusiasm," Altemus said of a defense that has three shutouts this season. "He's done a great job."
West Allegheny has its trademark defense again. The Indians have given up one touchdown in the past four games and only struggled defensively against New Castle.
The offense has cruised the past four games in averaging 40 points per game. Behind quarterback Luke Palko, who completed 8 of 10 passes for 129 yards and a score last week, and running back Dionte Henry (1,203 yards and 18 touchdowns), the offense has showed signs of having the balance it did last season.
"The kid (Luke) is resilient," Palko said. "He's improving. I'm really proud of him. I think he's playing great football now. It's just a matter of can we put it all together.
"But does it matter• This kid (McCabe) is that good. It might not matter what you have."
What the Indians do have is a 21-5 playoff record since 1997, including 12-1 since 2000.
"We're pretty confident," Hough said. "What we feel is that West A had its turn and now it's ours."