When times got tough, North Allegheny turned to Alex Papson, who carried the Tigers to the WPIAL title game.
Yet, here at Heinz Field, they couldn’t.
With Papson injured, North Allegheny watched its offense stall and its three-touchdown lead shrink. But the Tigers’ defense kept the WPIAL title from slipping away when it stopped Woodland Hills twice late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 21-14 victory in the Class AAAA championship game.
Woodland Hills’ final chance ended at midfield, when linebacker Clay Bunting intercepted a fourth-down pass with 17 seconds left.
“When our backs are up against the wall, that’s when we play our best,” said linebacker Kevin Cope, who had two sacks, a team-high nine tackles and recovered a fumble.
This was the second WPIAL title for North Allegheny (12-1), with its first coming in 1990. The Tigers will play at 7 p.m. Friday against State College (7-6) at Pine-Richland in the PIAA playoffs.
“This feels awesome,” said senior Rob Kugler, who had five tackles, one sack and a 3-yard touchdown catch against Woodland Hills (9-4), the defending WPIAL champion.
With Papson on the field, North Allegheny built a 21-0 halftime lead. At that point, Papson had 93 yards on 20 carries. But early in the third, the 2,500-yard rusher left with a shoulder injury after just two more carries.
On the next play, backup Matt Steinbeck left with an ankle injury. Now missing both tailbacks, the Tigers’ offense struggled.
“It’s was a heavy blow to take,” North Allegheny coach Art Walker said, “but I give them credit for their resilience. We tried to keep the clock rolling, and asked the defense to do it again for us one more time.”
Woodland Hills scored twice in the third quarter to pull within a touchdown. The first was on a 46-yard pass from Pat Menifee to Shakim Alonzo. The second was a 25-yard run by Lafayette Pitts with 1:24 left in the quarter. But unlike their quarterfinal comeback against Mt. Lebanon, when the Wolverines forced overtime, there were no fourth-quarter heroics.
“We gave it a shot, and I’m proud of the effort,” Woodland Hills coach George Novak said. “We can talk about ‘what if,’ but North Allegheny has a good football team. For the first half, I thought they were the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
During those first two quarters, North Allegheny played a near-perfect half. The Tigers scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, including two touchdown passes by Buchert and a long scoring run by Papson.
At halftime, the Tigers led, 21-0.
With 2:07 left before halftime, Woodland Hills drove to the 3-yard line. But Pitts fumbled, and North Allegheny’s Cope recovered to preserve the first-half shutout.
On nine first-half carries, Pitts had 10 yards. He finished with 49 yards on 18 carries.
North Allegheny took the lead, 7-0, with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Buchert to Kugler with 5:50 left in the first quarter. The pass ended a nine-play, 93-yard drive.
Early in the second, North Allegheny strung together another long scoring drive. The seven-play possession covered 75 yards, leading to an 18-yard touchdown pass from Buchert to receiver James Kleinhampl.
Buchert completed his first six passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns.
A resilient run by Papson gave the Tigers a three-touchdown lead. A straight-ahead carry by Papson seemingly was stopped for a short gain, but the 5-foot-8 runner fought through the crowd for a 43-yard touchdown run. The drive covered 65 yards in four plays. With 3:56 left in the second, North Allegheny led, 21-0.
“The run he broke was all him,” Kugler said. “He was bottled up for a 4-yard gain, and then he took off. You lose that when he goes out.”