NORTH HUNTINGTON, Pa. — Bob Palko did everything he could to win his ninth WPIAL championship. He pulled out all the stops. The West Allegheny Indians converted two fourth downs. They converted an onsides kick. They hogged the football for over 30 minutes of play, running 22 more plays than Penn Hills. The effort was inspirational.
However, with a team like Penn Hills, one or two plays can derail the perfect gameplan. Penn Hills made those plays and changed the game, coming back from a 10-0 deficit to win the Class 5A WPIAL championship 28-18.
The first play that changed the game turned a 10-0 halftime deficit into a 10-6 hole. West Allegheny had complete control of the game. With just under two minutes to play in half, and getting the ball at the half, they had a chance to go on a long drive, bleed the third quarter out and put up another score to push Penn Hills into a bad spot.
However, with their backs against the wall, the Penn Hills Indians needed just one play to change momentum. Hollis Mathis dropped back, he dropped a dime on Dante Cephas, and Cephas did the rest, scoring a 56-yard touchdown that made a two-score game a one-score game at the half.
“Dante and I, we’ve been doing that since we were seven years old,” exclaimed quarterback Hollis Mathis. “We’ve been doing that forever; he was my first best receiver. Its’ second nature for us, I’m like alright if the first guys not open let me find Dante. I was able to see the nine route pop and number four is a fantastic player from there.”
“That was a pivotal point in the game knowing that they would get the ball,” added coach Jon LeDonne. “The way they were running their offense, keeping the ball for five or six minutes, keeping our offense off of the field.”
Dante Cephas, the Kent State commit was not done showing his fantastic skill set. While Mathis connected with Cephas for the first game-changing play, the play of the game was a blocked kick by Cephas.
West Allegheny did just as LeDonne had predicted coming out of the half. They took the ball straight down the field chewing up just over six minutes, keeping the explosive attack on the sidelines. However, the Indians defense held, with a Dante Cephas pass breakup. Then, Cephas took points off of the board with a blocked kick that swung the entire game.
“As soon as we blocked that kick I knew we had momentum,” Cephas exclaimed. “Just stay calm, stay locked in and focused on your job and your job only, and that is what we did, and it worked.” Dante Cephas said as his rallying cry to make play after play that affected this game.
“That’s just Dante being Dante,” added coach LeDonne. “We told him at practice your number is going to be called and you need to make a play. It was a four-point game, that’s huge anytime you can make a play in a close game.”
Dante Cephas came to the call. He capped off the game later with a 76-yard touchdown off of a screen. Cephas made etched his name into one of the great WPIAL performances with his game-changing performance.
Bob Palko goes out with class
There is no doubt that Penn Hills had the advantage in athletes. Penn Hills knew it, and West Allegheny knew it. However, West Allegheny had roared through the playoffs as the five-seed on the back of their spirit to send off the legendary Palko with a win. West Allegheny pulled out all of the stops to keep the close, and quite honestly, they got as close as any other team could have made it to almost pull it off.
“No question we had to play perfect,” laughed Bob Palko. “We thought that back in the first round. It is truly amazing what these kids did to get to the finals. They’re special kids you admire.”
While Palko would not admit the team made a run in honor of his final season, he did acknowledge that his team being able to gather together around as a unit is what helped guide them this far.
“It’s really cool to see these kids do stuff for the betterment of the group rather than themselves.”
Restoring the tradition
Head coach Jon LeDonne won his first WPIAL championship in just the second year coaching with the Penn Hills Indians. The win gave Penn Hills their first championship since 1995. LeDonne mentioned watching his opponent on Friday night Bob Palko back when he was in high school and still looks up to the coach who is stepping away after the loss.
“As a young coach he is kind of a role model for myself,” LeDonne mentioned. “Nothing but respect for coach Palko. A class act guy.”
LeDonne looks to use his days of watching Palko, and now going head to head with Palko to guide him into the Palko territory of a coach. LeDonne wants Penn Hills to have the tradition and same ring to their name that Palko and his West Allegheny Indians have.
“I am hoping to restore that type of pride in the community,” LeDonne added. “I am so happy for the community. To see them back out in the stands and seeing the restoring of pride in a tradition-rich program.”
Can the young, up and coming LeDonne reach that status? Dante Cephas seems to think so.
“Greatest coach I have ever had,” Cephas exclaimed. “Everything he tells us is right, and he keeps us out of trouble. He makes us work hard.”
Now, coach LeDonne will have his eyes set on Archbishop wood in the PIAA semifinals.
“Let’s go down in history” exclaimed Dante Cephas.