Class 5A football coaches approve of WPIAL’s choice for title game
Penn-Trafford football coach John Ruane and Gateway’s Don Holl understand the atmosphere and excitement that come with Heinz Field.
Their teams were there on opposite sidelines last November for the WPIAL championship. However, if they’re to rematch this fall, it won’t be at the North Shore stadium.
The WPIAL Class 5A final is moving to Norwin, the WPIAL decided last week, an alternate site that both Ruane and Holl are quick to endorse.
“I don’t think the nostalgia is ever going to sniff Heinz Field, but arguably you’ll feel like you’re at a louder place,” Ruane said. “We’ve played a lot of games at Norwin, and there have been a lot of big crowds there. It’s exciting. I can only imagine it will be even more exciting for the championship game.
“Certainly it’s not the mystique of Heinz, but for a high school venue, it’s really good.”
The WPIAL Class 5A final is Nov. 23, a week after the Class 6A, 4A, 3A and A finals are held either Nov. 16 or 17 at Heinz Field.
The Class 2A final is Nov. 24 at Robert Morris’ 3,000-seat Walton Stadium, which was considered too small to host the Class 5A final. Norwin seats around 5,000.
“Anything but Heinz Field is different,” Holl said. “We’ve played some great playoff games at Norwin, and we couldn’t feel there was a better facility to have that game — as far as a high school stadium goes. Their staff is phenomenal, and their facilities are tremendous. Unfortunately, there’s only one Heinz Field that has that ambiance and mystique.”
The number of WPIAL football teams in Class 5A rose from 18 the past two seasons to 24 this fall, so the WPIAL increased the playoff field from eight qualifiers to 16. To make that work, the WPIAL pushed the Class 5A final back one week.
If asked to choose either a 16-team playoff bracket or a championship game at Heinz Field, the consensus among 5A schools was for 16 teams, said WPIAL executive director Tim O’Malley.
“I agree with that,” Ruane said. “We’re up to 24 teams now. Only going with eight really leaves some high-quality teams out. If they would have done that, they’d really have to look at balancing the conferences based on quality of teams rather than geography. I don’t know any coach that was against it. I think everybody agreed that 16 teams was the most important thing.”
Class 5A will have three conferences with eight teams each. Five teams from each conference and one wildcard qualify for the WPIAL playoffs.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” McKeesport coach Matt Miller said of the 16-team bracket. “It was nice the last couple of years, but there’s a lot of pressure. You can’t drop one game. You’re looking over your shoulder the whole time. I think 16 is the fairest way they can do it.”
McKeesport faced West Allegheny at Heinz Field for the inaugural WPIAL Class 5A final in 2016.
“It’s fun to play at Heinz Field. It’s a neat experience,” Miller said. “But a championship’s a championship. I don’t care where you’ve got to play it at.”
McKeesport and Gateway combined for memorable semifinals at Norwin each of the past two seasons. McKeesport won 41-38 two years ago with a last-second touchdown, and Gateway won 28-21 last fall with a game-saving defensive stop.
“Norwin is a phenomenal place to play a high school game,” Holl said. “Without being critical in any way, I don’t think any site had a shot to make people say it’s just as good as Heinz. There’s no way that was going to happen. But that being said, you can celebrate on that field, too. I think we’d all be thrilled if that was our biggest problem, the fact that we were in a championship game somewhere else, and it wasn’t Heinz Field.”