Pittsburgh Sports Now’s 2018 coverage of WPIAL Football is sponsored by Dunkin’ Donuts of Pittsburgh. We appreciate their commitment to high school sports in Western Pennsylvania and to Pittsburgh Sports Now.
In Pittsburgh, the six degrees of separation theory can usually be paired down to two or three degrees, and high school football probably gets it down even shorter.
That’s why Quaker Valley coach Ron Balog was not surprised to see his phone light up with text messages after Monday night’s WPIAL pairings meeting.
Balog – who is in his first year as head coach – spent eight years as a coach in the Catholic youth football system. Balog said he has coached 22 of the players he will face Friday night in the WPIAL Class 3A playoffs at Stone Field in North Park.
Balog and North Catholic coach Pat O’Shea ran into each other as recently as Week 3 of the season.
O’Shea’s three youngest kids attend St. Gregory in Zelienople and one daughter was playing a volleyball game against Balog’s daughter, giving the two a chance to talk about being a head coach at the high school level (this year is O’Shea’s second as coach for North Catholic).
The two spoke briefly at the pairings meeting on Monday as well, and the two have a lot of mutual respect for each other. But that doesn’t placate the fear of playing someone who knows your players as well as Balog does.
“It’s funny when you get to go against someone you know, there’s a little bit of thinking, ‘do they know this, do they know that’,” said O’Shea. “We’ve been teasing (defensive back coach Virg Palumbo), they’ve been friends for a super long time.”
The familiarity between coaching staffs is one thing, but the parity between the programs is what makes Friday’s game interesting as both teams are looking to solidify themselves as contenders in Class 3A.
Let’s start with North Catholic, who has played in three different classifications in the past four seasons, and has had success at each level.
The current seniors won a conference championship in Class 1A their freshman season, a Class 2A championship as juniors and are entering the playoffs the Trojans finished the season as co-champions in the Class 3A Big East Conference with a 7-1 record.
The Trojans entered the season as one of the favorites to challenge Aliquippa for a WPIAL Championship, but a few bumps in the road have helped define the North Catholic season.
In the only game that was decided by less than 27 points, North Catholic defeated Central Valley 14-13, and it took an interception from Tyree Brown on a second-and-goal late in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
“That showed our kids that we’re a triple-A football team now,” said O’Shea. “We beat a really, really great Central Valley football team who, in their time since the merger, has put together a great winning tradition. They didn’t miss a beat.
“We played them the last two years when we were double-A as our bump-up game, and both times we got beat pretty good (52-28 and 42-13), so I think there was a little bit of overcoming in the second half thinking we can play in triple-A, we’re a good football team. We learned some lessons about composure and discipline.”
North Catholic’s second bump-up game last season was Quaker Valley, which also was not pretty. The Quakers defeated North Catholic 55-21 en route to a 14-1 season that included WPIAL and PIAA Championships.
“We kind of watched Quaker Valley all last year, because that was our Week Zero game,” said O’Shea. “As they put together that incredible story, beating Aliquippa 2-0 and going on to win the first state championship for your school’s football team, our kids are very aware of it. I say it every chance I get: These are the defending state champions.”
The job for the Quakers now is to build upon that success and prove it was not a one-time Cinderella story.
After seven seasons in a different conference, the Quakers were once again put in a section that contains Beaver Falls and Aliquippa in 2015. The Central Valley merger thrown in there has created one of the tougher conferences in the WPIAL and maybe even the state.
Over the past three seasons, this section has produced a WPIAL Champion (in 2015 Aliquippa won a Class 2A championship, Beaver Falls and Quaker Valley won 3A championships in 2016 and 2017). The Tigers and Quakers won state championships that season and Aliquippa lost to Southern Columbia in the state championship in 2015.
Quaker Valley is taking steps toward being considered a perennial favorite as this group of seniors has a cumulative record of 30-13, and this is the first time in the program’s history the team has qualified for the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
That doesn’t mean things came easily for Quaker Valley this season. The team’s reward this season after winning a state championship: three opening games against Central Valley, Aliquippa and Beaver Falls.
The record bottomed out at 1-3 after a loss to Elizabeth Forward, but the Quakers have won four of their last five games and clinched a playoff spot two weeks ago with a win over Hopewell.
“When we looked at the schedule, it was hold on to your hats, we’re going to find out real soon what we got,” said Balog.
“But that was the message I gave since day one when I was hired; what happened last year at Quaker Valley – any time you win a WPIAL or state championship it’s extremely hard – but what I told them is now the hard work really begins. We always want to be talked about as one of the elite teams in Triple-A. And that needs to happen on a year-in and year-out basis. We want to be competitive and make the playoffs on a year-in and year-out basis.”
The team’s winning streak has coincided with a stabilizing of the offensive line. In nine regular season games, the Quakers played eight different offensive line combinations.
Balog said injuries and academic reasons have caused the shuffling, but the line has stabilized over the past few weeks and he feels confident with the group heading into the playoffs. Sophomore Dustin Grimm has locked down the center position and is joined by seniors George Francic, Jeremy McCoy and Brad Stadley. Left guard Eli Martin is a junior and Balog chuckled a little bit when he said how happy he was to have him back next season.
• Similarity: Quarterbacks
This may be one of the better quarterback matchups in the first round of the playoffs. North Catholic’s Zack Rocco and Quaker Valley’s Ethan Moore finished second and fifth respectively in Class 3A with 1,555 and 1,411 passing yards on the season.
Rocco finished second with 22 touchdowns while Moore also finished in double digits with 10.
Rocco passed for more than 2,000 yards last season and after improving as a quarterback, O’Shea said the junior has become a better leader this season.
“I think my greatest asset I bring to this (coaching) is patience,” said O’Shea. “Sometimes people don’t understand the importance of patience. And Zack understands that. Last year he started to realize there’s no need to force the football, I’d much rather have a two-yard rush than a turnover.
“This year he’s the leader of our offense. The kids have embraced his calmness, embraced his ability to never show bad body language if something goes wrong.”
Rocco has thrown just two interceptions in 137 passing attempts.
Moore is a dual-threat quarterback who has amassed over 500 rushing yards to go with his 1,400-plus passing yards and has taken a big step toward filling in the vacancy left by Ricky Guss.
“Ethan has had a fantastic year, he’s doing everything we thought he could do and more,” said Balog.
• Similarity: Offensive weapons
North Catholic has a little ceremony when a player is promoted from JV to Varsity. JV players wear gold practice jerseys, and when a player receives his red jersey, it’s his promotion to the varsity level.
Several red jerseys have been distributed this season, but the most important has been sophomore receiver Nick Maher.
His usage has increased steadily this season culminating with a week nine performance where he caught two touchdowns.
Maher is one of 12 Trojans to catch at least one pass this season while seven of those players have caught at least six passes. Eight players have logged at least 10 rushing attempts and 13 players have scored a touchdown for North Catholic.
“We probably have 12 or 13 kids that we can throw in or out of there at a fast pace, and not feel like we’re losing anything. Everyone has the speed and the hands, they’ve committed to the weight room, there are a few who haven’t missed,” said O’Shea.
The Quaker Valley stats are almost identical.
Six players have caught at least six passes on the season while seven players have at least six rushes on the season.
Eight players have scored touchdowns for Quaker Valley.
“This is another key to our success of winning four out of five down the road, is that we’ve had other guys emerge offensively that boost our ability to spread the ball around,” said Balog. “Guys like Smith Johnson (seven receptions for 173 yards) has been fantastic catching the ball and running the ball. Cameron Nelson (nine receptions 129 yards) is another guy. He caught the winning touchdown against Keystone Oaks in overtime.”
The winner of Friday’s game will face the winner of the Central Valley at Derry game in next week’s WPIAL semi-finals.