Pat Carey proudly walks through the Martorelli Stadium locker room pointing out the WPIAL championship banners recognizing former North Hills teams. He knows firsthand how special those teams were, because he played on them.
Carey graduated from North Hills in 1988, starring on the squads that won WPIAL championships in 1985 and 1987. He later returned to his alma mater and served as the defensive coordinator for 15 years under the legendary Jack McCurry.
When McCurry retired in 2012, Carey was promoted to head coach. While the Indians have enjoyed continued success under their new coach, they’ve yet to win a playoff game, a motivating factor for this year’s team. North Hills has lost in the first round of the playoffs five straight seasons, including a 41-21 defeat to perennial power West Allegheny last year.
The two teams will meet again this week for the first time since last November’s playoff meeting.
“This one, obviously, coming off a WPIAL title and having played them twice [West Allegheny] last year—both in the regular season and in the playoffs—this is a big one,” Carey said.
North Hills carries a 1-1 record into the Friday night’s contest after falling to Upper St. Clair, 21-7, last week. Junior Tyler Brennan took the ball 80 yards for a score on the first play from scrimmage, yet the Indians were shutout the rest of the way.
“We had some momentum,” Carey said. “Unfortunately, when you play a team like Upper St. Clair—they’re well coached, they’re going to do things the right way—they didn’t panic.”
Senior quarterback Will Hirt is back for the second straight season and has thrown for 100 yards and a touchdown in two games. Carey expressed the staff needs to do a better job of creating opportunities for Hirt.
“I think he’s played well,” Carey said. “We had been looking at it last week, and he probably needs a few more opportunities to spread the ball around a bit as the season goes on. He’s a hard working young man who has really put a ton of time into this.”
Senior running back Melvin Blanks is a load and averages more than seven yards per carry. He reached the endzone twice in the team’s Week Zero win over Shaler and figures to heavily involved again this week.
The offensive line is anchored by senior tackle Jason Heinauer, who is a three-year starter, and junior tackle Lirion Murtezi. Carey is looking for more consistency from the offensive line after two weeks of play.
“That’s a group that has to get some consistency and working together,” Carey said. “We’re hoping as the year goes on it will continue to progress.”
Senior Matt McCartan provides the rush up front on defense, and Alex Glatz leads the linebacking corps. Brennan and Blanks also play a key role in the secondary.
North Hills struggled with field position against Upper St. Clair, and Carey knows the Indians avoid such problems against West Allegheny if they plan to bounce back.
“Traditionally, they are the team you think of when you say West Allegheny,” Carey said. “When you turn the tape on, it’s apparent they are well coached—there’s a culture out there, you can tell their kids buy in—they’re a tough team.”
West Allegheny lost several players to graduation and transfer, yet under 23-year head coach Bob Palko, the Indians are always a factor to reach Heinz Field. No coach has won more WPIAL championships than Palko’s eight.
The defending Class 5A WPIAL champions jumped out to a 27-7 lead against Fox Chapel in their season opener last week and won, 41-20. Junior Dante Flati scored two rushing touchdowns, and the Indians would return a pair of interceptions for touchdowns.
Palko said the interceptions set the tone for the game, but he was also disappointed with his team’s second half effort.
“You take away those two plays away and that game is even as can be,” Palko said. “It was the story of two halves—a young team goes up by how many points it was and thinks the game is over. Fox Chapel never gave up and never gave in.”
Junior Jamie Diven starts at quarterback but will split snaps with senior tailback Will Weber, who frequently lines up in the wildcat formation.
Weber is a dynamic offensive threat and one of the region’s top players. His versatility was on display against Fox Chapel, as he threw for two touchdowns and accounted for one of the interception returns.
Senior wideout Isaiah Crowe, who stands at 6-foot-5, and junior tight end Mateo Vandamia are the top receiving threats.
Senior all-conference linebacker Anthony Dellovade is the leader on defense. Senior cornerback Kolbe Stout and senior safety Noah Ledford are the other key contributors.
Palko anticipates a tough matchup Friday and fully understands North Hills will be motivated to avenge its two losses from a year ago.
“They have that air about them—that toughness,” Palko said. “Those kids have really good memories. They remember losing two games last year—one in the regular season, one in the playoffs. They’re going to come in ready to go. They’re a very good team.”