Woodland Hills, North Allegheny overcome setbacks on way to title game
There was a point this season, as Mike Caprara explains it, that Woodland Hills’ desire was tested. After three losses in four games, did the Wolverines want to fight or fold?
“We were going to have to start from scratch,” said Caprara, a linebacker who leads the team in tackles.
North Allegheny faced a similar question. The Tigers were unbeaten and seemingly unstoppable until they stumbled into the playoffs with a Week 9 loss to their biggest rival.
Would that game sidetrack their season?
“It was something we talked about immediately following the loss,” said Art Walker, North Allegheny’s coach. “They were upset and down about it. We needed to get focused.”
With the teams scheduled to meet Saturday evening at Heinz Field, it’s clear neither chose to fold. North Allegheny (11-1) will face defending champion Woodland Hills (9-3) in the WPIAL Class AAAA title game at 7:30 p.m.
This wasn’t the obvious matchup when the playoffs started three weeks ago. North Allegheny was seeded No. 5. Woodland Hills was No. 7. To get here, their playoff paths included an overtime victory, second-half rallies and victories over two unbeaten opponents.
“I’m proud of this team because they didn’t give up on themselves,” Woodland Hills coach George Novak said. “They used it as motivation to get better.”
Both teams have used similar formulas for success: Talented running backs, strong defenses and veteran coaches with multiple titles.
This will be North Allegheny’s first trip to the championship game since 1998, when it was held at Three Rivers Stadium. The Tigers last won a football title in 1990.
Their hopes rest with 5-foot-8 senior Alex Papson, who has rushed for 2,300-plus yards and 31 touchdowns. In a semifinal victory against Central Catholic, Papson had 190 yards behind the WPIAL’s largest offensive line.
“He’s an outstanding running back,” Novak said. “He has great strength and a low center of gravity. He breaks a lot of tackles, so we’ve got to get a lot of people around the ball.”
Woodland Hills’ Lafayette Pitts has rushed for 1,700 yards and scored 27 touchdowns, including three last week against North Hills on runs of 4, 56 and 52 yards. Pitts was slowed during the season’s first month because of a knee injury.
The Wolverines were 1-3 after four games, with losses to Manatee of Bradenton, Fla., Central Catholic and North Hills. The 2009 champs were falling quickly from their place as preseason favorites. Caprara and his defense, with multiple formations and multiple Division I recruits, helped them rebound.
“One week, you’re loved by the world, and one week, you’re hated,” Caprara said. “That’s when you have to prove them wrong.”
Woodland Hills (9-3)
Playoff history — Woodland Hills has won five WPIAL Class AAAA titles, the most recent being a 10-0 victory over Gateway in the 2009 championship game.
Coach — George Novak is 252-121-1 in 31 seasons as head coach at Woodland Hills and earlier Steel Valley. He has won six WPIAL titles.
Best 2010 victory — Devon White caught a tying touchdown pass and two-point conversion with 16 seconds left to force overtimes, where Woodland Hills gave Mt. Lebanon its first loss, 29-22, in a WPIAL quarterfinal.
North Allegheny (11-1)
Playoff history — North Allegheny won WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA titles in 1990. This will be the Tigers’ first trip to the WPIAL championship game since 1998, when they lost to New Castle at Three Rivers Stadium.
Coach — Art Walker is 51-17 in six years as head coach of the Tigers. From 1998-2004, Walker was head coach at Central Catholic and won two WPIAL championships and a PIAA title in 2004.
Best 2010 victory — Alex Papson rushed for 190 yards, including 161 in the second half, to deal Central Catholic its first loss, 17-7, in the WPIAL semifinals.
Game time: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Site: Heinz Field