A season to remember
Every scholastic football season is unique in its own way, but 1995 was all that and more.
Ten years ago, there was a little everything, from lightning in a snow squall, overtime games, a bulldozer stuck on a field and, finally, a WPIAL champion.
Burrell upset New Brighton on a field that featured some of the worst conditions imaginable, Plum won two of three overtime games during the regular season, Riverview overcame a slew of injuries to make the semifinals, and Valley had a month-full of memorable routs.
There was even a common quality in the spellings of the four WPIAL champions.
Growing up as a young fan, Jason Carpenter saw the Burrell Bucs race to the 1986 WPIAL title at Three Rivers Stadium. When he put on a Bucs uniform, Carpenter wanted a title for his era.
But Burrell exited the 1994 semifinals with a 27-0 loss to New Brighton, and the junior linebacker wondered how the Bucs could get further the following year after losing a number of key players.
“Those guys on the ’86 team were my childhood heroes, but it was a goal I wanted to accomplish, too,” Carpenter said. “After losing that game, I thought that was our chance, but in ’95 we came back and a lot of guys were very passionate about the game.”
Burrell had to defeat Apollo-Ridge, 33-7, on the final night of the regular season to clinch the Allegheny Conference title. The Bucs opened the playoffs at home, surviving a triple overtime cliffhanger against East Allegheny. The semifinals saw a rematch with New Brighton at Baldwin High School’s Cibik Stadium. An early snowfall covered Baldwin and western Pennsylvania overall three days before the big game. On the day of the game, Baldwin reportedly tried to bulldoze the snow and ice off the field, to no avail. With field conditions deteriorating by the minute, Burrell’s Jason Gregg picked up a fumble with four minutes left in the game, giving Burrell a victory.
“We were saying in the huddle that we had to force a turnover, we were running out of time,” Carpenter recalled.
New Brighton recovered a fumble on the previous play, and Carpenter thought that was Burrell’s chance. On the next play, Gregg picked up the ball and Burrell was on its way to Three Rivers, where the Bucs defeated Washington, 14-13, in the first overtime title game in WPIAL championship game history, and Carpenter had his gold medal.
“It was a real cardiac stress season,” said Carpenter, who currently is in his fourth season as a Bucs assistant coach.
After going 12-0 in 1994 before losing in the WPIAL finals, the Riverview Raiders were eager for more.
Before Riverview was very far into the 1995 season, injuries struck.
All-state tailback candidate Steve Dapra broke his ankle during a convincing Raiders victory at Duquesne. Riverview continued winning, however, despite the fact that the starting offensive line was not together on the field at the same time. Continuing to win in a tough conference was a huge challenge, but the Raiders were equal to the task.
“I don’t look at it so much as an accomplishment as it was a coaching challenge,” said Riverview coach Jake Cappa. “We had a staff and players who were willing to work very hard.”
The Raiders finished the regular season with their 20th straight victory and drew Frazier in a first-round game at Riverside Park. The game was interrupted by a prolonged snow squall that included lightning.
The Raiders put it all together and defeated Frazier, 57-21, in a game that set a record for the highest scoring WPIAL playoff game before the mark was snapped in 2002.
In the semifinals, Riverview fell to Monessen, 21-20, in overtime, denying the Raiders a trip to the finals.
“After getting an early kick blocked, we decided to go for two-pointers the rest of the way,” Cappa said.
Riverview would go to Three Rivers the following two season, winning it all in 1997.
“That ’95 team was special,” Cappa said. “They had an orneriness, but they were extremely intelligent and disciplined. I could put in a new play or new terminology at halftime, and they could handle it.”
Cappa retired as Riverview’s head coach but remains the school district’s athletic director.
Plum fans got to watch plenty of extra football in 1995. The Mustangs played three overtime games in the regular season, the first in a loss to Penn Hills after two extra sessions.
But the 28-27 victory over Kiski Area in October was pivotal.
“The week before, we had lost to Indiana,” said sophomore running back Dave Pucka. “We had to bounce back, and we beat Kiski, I think that was the turning point.”
Plum defeated McKeesport on the final night of the regular season in — you guessed it — overtime, 13-12. Quarterback Scott Umberger’s keeper and Ryan Wilson’s extra point proved to be the difference.
“I had transferred to Plum from Penn Hills before the start of the season and didn’t know what to expect,” Puska recalled. “But I got off a long run and heard legendary P.A. announcer Andy Sebastian say my name and that was big.”
Plum lost to Penn-Trafford in the opening round of the playoffs behind Tony Zimmerman, the outstanding Warriors quarterback. Puska and Zimmerman later became teammates at Duquesne University.
Puska now is an assistant coach at Franklin Regional.
After the first five games of 1995, the Valley Vikings were floundering at 1-4 and the program’s streak of nine winning seasons was in jeopardy.
Coach Ray White met with his staff and looked at changes.
“We weren’t going anywhere and as coaches, we decided to play the younger players, giving them a shot but not totally forgetting about the seniors,” White said.
The Vikings took off, outscoring their opponents, 163-0, over the final four games of the regular season, finishing 6-4 overall. A 35-0 rout of Highlands completed the regular season run.
“Brandon Williams was a sophomore, and we started giving him the ball more, plus we were awfully quick and had good speed on defense,” White said. “But Steve Lacinski really came on at quarterback.”
It was the start of 13 straight victories for Valley, still a school record. White retired from Valley in 2001 but has returned this season as an assistant at Hempfield.
Apollo-Ridge and Kittanning also had great 1995 seasons, finishing second in their respective conferences and making the WPIAL playoffs. Apollo-Ridge fell to New Brighton after keeping the game close for a half while Kittanning fell to Belle Vernon.
One other piece of uniqueness in 1995 was that all four WPIAL champions had a double-L in their name — Penn Hills, Belle Vernon, Burrell and Farrell.