WPIAL Class A final preview: Rochester chasing 9th district title, while OLSH is making 1st appearance
Author Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go home again.”
Gene Matsook is hoping Wolfe’s turn of a phrase has nothing to do with football.
Well, it isn’t exactly home that Matsook will be returning to Saturday when he takes his Rochester football team on a bus ride along Ohio River Boulevard to Pittsburgh’s North Shore to face Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in the WPIAL Class A title game.
But for nearly a decade at the turn of the new millennium, Heinz Field, not to mention Three Rivers Stadium prior to that, was virtually a second home for the Rams.
From 2000-10, Rochester played in the WPIAL championship game eight times, winning four titles. Overall, Rochester has eight WPIAL titles, as well as four PIAA championships.
“It’s always special to get there,” Matsook said. “We had stretch of some low enrollment and some transfers and we kind of fell off the map. But we persevered and rebuilt the program, and we were able to get back.”
Conversely, OLSH has no such illustrious history. OLSH only started playing football in 2010. The team made the first postseason appearance in school history in 2016, and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals last year before qualifying for the semifinals, and ultimately the title game, for the first time this year.
Despite the contrasting histories, OLSH was one of the teams that was favored to reach Heinz Field this year.
“Expectations are one thing,” OLSH coach Dan Bradley said. “The challenge was to go out and do it. We knew we had a lot of experience back this season, particularly at the skill positions. But you still have to go out and perform. I think we got better as the year progressed.”
Meanwhile, Rochester was a bit of a wild card.
“No one was talking about us all season,” Matsook said. “All of the talk was about Jeannette and Clairton and OLSH. I guess we crashed the party.”
While none of the players from either team have ever played a game on the Heinz Field surface, both coaches have extensive experience at the Steelers’ home facility. Matsook has won three of his four titles at Heinz and has coached there seven times.
Meanwhile, Bradley has coached at Heinz Field four times. He was the head coach at Sto-Rox in 2012 and ‘13 when the Vikings finished as WPIAL Class A runners-up both years. He also was the offensive coordinator at Sto-Rox in 2011, also a runner-up finish, and won a WPIAL title as an assistant at South Fayette in 2010.
Both coaches said their respective experiences will benefit their teams.
“I think the big thing it will help with is time management,” Bradley said. “Everything is very structured for a WPIAL championship game — things like when you can enter and exit the locker rooms and the field; TV timeouts. There are a lot of things that are going to be different for them over the course of the game, so the experience of having someone who has done it before should help us.”
“It’ll be helpful,” Matsook said. “We’ll be able to give them a little insight into how things work once we get there and what to expect.”
Along with the pomp-and-circumstance of playing in a televised championship game in a professional stadium, both coaches must also prepare for the actual game itself. Not only do the two teams have divergent histories, the have vastly different offensive philosophies.
OLSH has one of the most prolific passers in the WPIAL in senior quarterback Tyler Bradley, the son of the coach. Bradley, who has passed for more than 8,000 career yards, has thrown for 3,049 yards and 42 touchdowns this season.
“Bradley is as good of a quarterback as you’re going to see,” Matsook said. “They have some very talented athletes around him, as well. They can spread he ball around.”
Dan Bradley said his team has become more multi-dimensional over the course of the season.
“Our line play has gotten better and better all season, and as a result we’re running the ball better,” Bradley said. “We’ve definitely been running the ball very well in the playoffs.”
On the other sideline, running the football has been Rochester’s mode of operation for decades. The Rams feature running backs Noah Whiteleather, who has rushed for 1,913 yards and 26 TDs this season, along with Darius Goosby, who has added 885 yards and 17 TDs.
“They have a nice one-two punch,” Bradley said. “Their offensive line is really good; they block so well and they get off the ball really well. We’ve actually used clips of Rochester’s offensive line as a teaching tool for our guys to show them how they should get off the ball.”
Despite the difference between the two teams’ styles, and histories, being at polar ends of the spectrum, both coaches had similar views on the keys to victory.
“It’s cliché, but in big games the team that makes the fewest mistakes and doesn’t turn the ball over typically comes out on top,” Bradley said. “I’m sure that will be the case.”
“In a game like this, you have to be fundamentally sound,” Matsook said. “That’s usually the team that comes out on top.”
Jim Equels Jr. is a freelance writer.