PIAA football playoffs: 30 years in 30 days — USC, Perry claim titles in ’89
The PIAA had been hosting state playoffs in all but one fall high school sport since 1976. Soccer, volleyball, tennis, golf, cross country and field hockey all crowned state champions once the district playoffs concluded.
The lone exception to the fall state playoff slate was high school football.
It wasn’t until 1988 when PIAA officials finally pulled the trigger on the idea of having a yearly state football playoff.
From George Novak and Woodland Hills losing in a mud pit to Bob Palko and West Allegheny finding the third time really was the charm to Neil Walker and Pine-Richland competing in a heartbreaking overtime loss in a snowstorm and to Tyler Boyd and the golden Bears of Clairton winning four straight state championships.
There have been a lot of thrills and heartbreak in three decades of state championship football. Leading up to the 2018 state finals, the TribLIVE High School Sports Network will look back at how WPIAL teams have fared in the PIAA championships with 30 years in 30 days.
The Year: 1989
The Sites: Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Memorial Stadium in Middletown
The Champs: Upper St. Clair, Perry, Hickory and Dunmore
The Headline: USC accepts invitation and wins; Perry is golden City League champ
The Lowdown: The year before, Upper St. Clair school officials voted not to partake in the inaugural PIAA football playoffs.
Regrets? Perhaps as the team the Panthers beat in the WPIAL finals, Central Catholic went on to win the first Class AAAA state championship.
In Year 2, school officials had a change of heart and decided they would take part if the opportunity arose.
The football team did its part by earning a spot in the state postseason by beating North Hills, 38-14, for a second straight district crown.
The Panthers throttled District 6 champion Hollidaysburg, 51-21, in the PIAA semifinals to earn a spot in the title game opposite District 3 winner West Lawn Wilson.
The game was played under the lights at frigid Hersheypark Stadium with temperatures in the teens.
Upper St. Clair relied on a great 1-2 punch in the running attack as Peter Habib led the Panthers with 151 yards and former Pittsburgh Steelers scout Doug Whaley ran for 85 yards.
The USC defense, led by defensive back and future major leaguer Kevin Orie, faced the stiff challenge from Wilson quarterback Kerry Collins, who would later star at Penn State and for six teams in an 18-year NFL career.
The Panthers defense, with some help from Mother Nature, limited Collins to 115 passing yards and the Bulldogs offense to only 218 total yards as Upper St. Clair rolled to a 12-7 victory.
Upper St. Clair became the first PIAA football champion with a perfect record at 15-0.
• Earlier in the day, Perry became the first and, to this day, only team from the Pittsburgh City League to win a state football title.
In an example of the awkwardness of the early years of the state playoffs, Perry beat Greensburg Salem in the semifinals, 23-0. The Golden Lions had lost in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs yet because of the strange point system, they found themselves at old South Stadium playing Perry for a spot in the state title game.
The shutout win gave the Commodores a trip to frigid Hershey against defending champion Berwick. The Bulldogs were unbeaten and ranked No. 4 in the country by USA Today.
Trailing 8-0 at the half and 8-6 after three, Mike Coates recovered a fumble at the Berwick 7, and Rahmon Hart scored two plays later to give the Commodores their first lead and set up a wild and crazy finish.
With a half-minute left, Berwick drove to the Perry 3-yard line. The Bulldogs had two touchdowns taken off the board because of penalties before Darnell Farrow intercepted a pass and as time expired, returned the pick 100 yards to cap off a 20-8 upset.