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Few surprises in WPIAL football playoff pairings

Chris Harlan

When Carmichaels’ John Menhart bumped into Clairton’s coach Monday night, Menhart joked about exchanging game films right then.

Why wait?

The pairings for the WPIAL playoffs hadn’t been announced — that would come a little later — but Menhart believed his Mighty Mikes certainly held the winning ticket in the “Who has to play Clairton first?” lottery.

“I could have gone home and got started preparing,” Menhart said with a laugh.

When the pairings were released at the Green Tree Radisson, Clairton was seeded No. 1 in the Class A bracket, and Carmichaels was indeed No. 16.

The other No. 1 seeds were Central Catholic in Class AAAA, Montour in Class AAA and Aliquippa in Class AA.

“Class AAA and AA were the toughest to seed,” said Tim O’Malley, the WPIAL’s executive director. “The quality of teams throughout made it difficult. If you look at the records and how they matched up, they’re all pretty even. It created a lot of debate.”

Claiming the No. 2 seed in Class AAA was Thomas Jefferson, a perennial power that enters the playoffs having won eight straight.

“We’ve kind of been under the radar, just trying to get better every week,” said coach Bill Cherpak, adding that this year felt much like 2004, when TJ won the state title. “We just kept kind of chugging along and getting better.”

The four 16-team playoffs begin Friday with home games for the higher-seeded squads. All games begin at 7:30 p.m.

The pairings meeting isn’t only about teams finding out who they’re going to play. Sometimes, it’s spent hoping to avoid a tough matchup in the early rounds.

“I don’t think anyone wants to play (Clairton) in the first round,” said North Catholic coach Bob Ravenstahl, whose team was seeded No. 11, placing his Trojans on the opposite side of the Class A bracket from Clairton. “I played them in the first round four years ago, and it wasn’t pretty.”

No team has dominated quite like unbeaten Clairton (9-0), the defending PIAA champion and two-time defending WPIAL champ. In the past three seasons, Clairton has won 39 of 41 games and reached Hershey in 2008 and ’09.

“There are a lot of Double- and Triple-A teams that wouldn’t want to play Clairton,” Menhart said. “Someone has got to play them. I guess it’s us.”

So far this season, Tom Nola’s Bears have outscored opponents, 483-19. Nobody has given them much of a challenge, a trend Nola said he hopes doesn’t stop in the playoffs.

“It’s better for my health,” Nola said with a laugh.

Still, Menhart wholeheartedly accepted the challenge.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for them,” Menhart said. “We’re happy to be here. It’s an honor to play them, but we’re going to do everything we can to win. We’re not going to apologize to anyone for being here.”

Among the 64 teams to reach the playoffs, 21 did not qualify in 2009. That includes Ringgold, which won the conference title under first-year coach Matt Humbert.

“I think we deserved to be where we’re seeded,” Humbert said. “Hopefully, we can prove that this week.”

There were few surprises among the seeds, though No. 7 seed Franklin Regional drew a tough first-round opponent in Hopewell, the No. 10 seed. Hopewell, led by star junior Rushel Shell, won four straight games to reached the playoffs.

“It’s the opponent I figured we’d get,” Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. “Hopewell is peaking right now. If we can play with them and beat them, I figure we can play with anyone.”

WPIAL first-round playoff games

All games Friday at 7:30 p.m.

CLASS AAAA

Bethel Park at McKeesport

Erie McDowell at Gateway

Norwin at Woodland Hills

Penn Hills at Upper St. Clair

Penn-Trafford at North Hills

Peters Township at North Allegheny

Pine-Richland vs. Central Catholic (at Fox Chapel)

Plum at Mt. Lebanon

CLASS AAA

Central Valley at Ringgold

Greensburg Salem at Knoch

Highlands at Thomas Jefferson

Hollidaysburg at Mars

Hopewell at Franklin Regional

Indiana at Belle Vernon

Trinity at West Allegheny

West Mifflin at Montour

CLASS AA

Beaver at Deer Lakes

East Allegheny at Ford City

Ellwood City at South Fayette

Freeport at Jeannette

Keystone Oaks at Greensburg Central Catholic

Mt. Pleasant vs. Seton-La Salle (at Chartiers Valley)

Shady Side Academy at Aliquippa

Steel Valley vs. Beaver Falls (at Geneva College)

CLASS A

Bishop Canevin at Fort Cherry

Brentwood at Avonworth

California at Rochester

Carmichaels at Clairton

Chartiers-Houston at Monessen

Cornell at Beth-Center

North Catholic at Sto-Rox

Western Beaver at Springdale


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