WPIAL’s Top 10 football champions of all time
To recognize 100 years of WPIAL football championships, the Tribune-Review selected what it and many within the Western Pennsylvania high school sports community regard as 10 title-winning teams that could lay claim to being tabbed the best of all time.
From 1914 Wilkinsburg to 2013's four champs, the Trib staff put all options in play.
Many merited consideration. These 10 made the cut.
Join the debate or offer your own alternatives to our Top 10 teams at Kevin Gorman's iPreps blog — blog.triblive.com/ipreps/
Donora High School put together quite a run in the mid 1940s. The 1944 squad, led by quarterback Arnold Galiffa, went 9-0 and defeated Ellwood City, 13-0, in the Class AA finals.
But the 1945 team, which was quarterbacked by Lou ‘Bimbo' Cecconi, was voted the best ever in the WPIAL by a group of legendary coaches, historians and sports writers. The 1945 Dragons rolled over New Kensington, 38-6, in the title game at a rainy St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
“I actually thought the 1944 team was better than the 1945 team,” said Cecconi, who was a reverse back on the 1944 team. “It was bigger and stronger. We kind of rode their coattails the next season.
“Other people say different. We were good. We returned only two starters — Deacon Dan Towler and Roscoe Ross — from the 1944 team.”
Donora averaged 28.8 points per game, and the starting defense didn't allow a point all season.
“Altoona scored a defensive touchdown when a player swiped the ball from Towler's arms in the end zone,” Cecconi said. “We beat them 36-7. In the championship game, it rained so much than our coach sent us to the locker room early to clean up because we had a big lead and New Kensington scored on the reserves.”
With a backfield of Towler, who played for the Los Angeles Rams, and Ross, Donora was able to control games with its running game.
Jim Russell coached Donora. The other top players were Ernest Ross at center, Rudy Andabaker and Tom Buchak at guards, Karl Pell and Ed Duda at tackles and Andy Lelik and Bill Samer at ends. Francis DeFelicis joined Cecconi, Towler and Ross in the backfield.
“What was nice about that group, almost everyone went on to college and were successful in life,” Cecconi said.
1947 NEW KENSINGTON
New Kensington High School, popularly known as Ken High, won the 1946 WPIAL title, and many of the same team members were back for more the following season.
Besides defending their WPIAL title, the Red Raiders experienced the first season of the new Memorial Stadium, named for the community's World War II veterans.
Ken High won the stadium debut against Central Catholic and rolled through the regular season.
“We won it in '46, but I thought the '47 team was more cohesive,” said George “Cub” France, the team's quarterback. “It was a great time. People were coming home from the war and we had incredible crowds like 17,000 against Vandergrift, 15,000 something against Har-Brack.”
One reason the team came together might well have been an incident after the 1946 campaign.
Miami's Peanut Bowl brought together the nation's best high school teams. Ken High was invited, but was told black players Willie Thrower and Flint Green had to stay back because of the Jim Crow laws in effect at the time. The Red Raiders said either the whole team goes or nobody goes — and they stayed home.
In the 1947 title game at Forbes Field, Ken High was pitted against cross-river rival Har-Brack, whom it did not play in the regular season, and posted an impressive 28-0 victory.
France, Thrower and six other teammates were recruited by Michigan State, with many a part of the Spartans 1952 national championship team.
Thrower would go on to become the first black quarterback in the Big Ten and the first in the NFL with the Bears in 1953.
Following five straight WPIAL titles, the Braddock Tigers were looking for an unprecedented sixth in a row.
But the community's concern focused a few blocks from the high school to the steel mill.
On July 15, 1959, the largest strike in American history began, and the four-month steelworkers walkout decimated the economy of Braddock and other Western Pennsylvania steel towns.
All the folks had was the Braddock Tigers, and they didn't disappoint, stampeding through the regular season and keeping the unbeaten streak in tact that would reach 56 games.
“We had lost our quarterback for three years, Mark Rutkosky, but we put in John Jacobs, and he did a fine job,” said Braddock coach Chuck Klausing, now living in Indiana, Pa.
When Braddock set the national unbeaten mark of 52 in a row, Sports Illustrated came to town to do a story on the hometown heroes.
Braddock had to get past similarly undefeated and rival North Braddock Scott to get into the WPIAL title game. Before 10,000 fans who crammed into Scott Stadium, the Tigers won in the last 37 seconds, 15-12.
Braddock then knocked off Waynesburg, 25-7, in the WPIAL title game at Washington High field.
“When I started at Braddock in 1953, we had maybe three black kids on the team and by ‘59, about half the team was black,” Klausing said. “We proved that blacks and whites could play together. In my 46 years of coaching, that includes college, it is the accomplishment I'm most proud of.”
1960 Beaver Falls
Years before there was a “Broadway Joe,” Western Pennsylvania had “Beaver Falls Joe.”
Just without the nickname, yet.
As a senior in 1960, quarterback Joe Namath led Beaver Falls to a WPIAL Class AA title with a team that outscored opponents 305-63. The future national champion, Pro Football Hall of Famer and Super Bowl winner completed 85 of 164 passes for 1,561 yards and 12 touchdowns in a season when few high school teams threw that much. Namath also ran for six scores.
“He was a terrific quarterback,” said former WPIAL executive director Charles “Ace” Heberling, who was an official for one of Namath's high school games. “He had the quality to become what he did. Guys like that stand out.”
As the only Class AA team with an undefeated record (9-0), the Tigers under second-year coach Larry Bruno were declared WPIAL champions without a championship game.
But Namath didn't win alone. His top receiver was Tom Krzemienski, who had 54 catches and later played for Michigan State. Teammates Karlin Ryan (Iowa), Bert Kerstetter (Princeton) and Tony Golmont (NC State) also were recruited to major colleges.
The 1965 Uniontown football team went 10-0, defeating eight opponents with winning records, on its way to a 14-7 victory in the WPIAL Class AA finals against Butler, before more than 12,500 fans at Pitt Stadium.
Dr. Roger Saylor, who developed a numerical rating system to determine the top teams in the state, gave Uniontown the highest mark ever of 571 points. The rating system was used until the 1987, when the PIAA playoffs began.
Senior all-state running back Ray Gillian (Ohio State) scored the winning touchdown on a 30-yard run with 1:53 left to cap an 87-yard, nine-play drive. Gillian scored despite playing on a fractured ankle. He rushed for 112 yards and caught five passes for 41 yards.
“I hurt it in the first half, but they wrapped it which allowed me to play,” Gillian said. “I thought it was a sprain. I'd do anything to stay in the game.
“We were pretty darn good. We had a number of players who went on to play in Division I. We played a lot of great games against some very good teams.”
Butler, behind the Saul brothers (Rich and Ron) jumped out to a 7-0 lead, but Uniontown's defense, which allowed 47 points the entire season, buckled down in the second half. Junior end John Hull caught the tying touchdown, a 12-yard pass from quarterback Wilfred Minor in the third quarter.
Hull (Penn State) and senior end Ray Parsons (Minnesota) were the other all-state players on the team, which was coached by Leon Kaltenbach.
Other star players included Minor, fullback Phil Vassar (Nebraska), halfback Trip Radcliffe and linemen Bucky Edenfield, Joey Croftcheck, Terry Brady and Sal Mercandante.
“It was a big thrill playing at Pitt Stadium and in the WPIAL finals,” Gillian said. “We were an awfully confident team. There was no way we weren't going to win. We probably wore them down.”
The 1986 Class AAAA championship game featured No. 1 North Hills (12-0) and Gateway (12-0).
These teams met in the 1985 championship game and played to a scoreless tie. There was no tiebreaker format in place.
A crowd, estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000, filled the lower two levels at Three Rivers Stadium. Gateway nipped North Hills, 7-6.
“It was a defensive struggle,” Gateway coach Pete Antimarino recalled. “The game was scoreless at halftime, and I went to (quarterback) Terry Smith and told him he had to make plays for us on offense.
“He did, and we put together a nice drive. When we were inside the North Hills 5, I told the linemen on the right to make a hole, and somehow, Terry scored.”
Smith, who rushed for 62 yards, completed only 1 of 7 passes for 2 yards in the game, but he scored on a 1-yard run with 6:21 left and Bill Truschel booted the extra point.
With Gateway leading 7-0, North Hills put together one final drive. Quarterback Joe Smithco hit a couple big passes and with two seconds left found Greg Morris for the touchdown.
North Hills coach Jack McCurry decided to go for the two-point conversion and the win.
With the entire stadium rocking, Smithco's pass was tipped and intercepted by Todd Washington to secure the win for Gateway.
Other stars on that Gateway team included linebacker Curtis Bray and defensive lineman Mike Livorio, both All-Americans in 1987.
“Both teams played well,” Antimarino said. “Jack (McCurry) was a real good coach and it was always a great game when we played them.
“It was a great accomplishment by the team. We had other great teams. The 1969 team was the first to win and no one thought we'd beat them.”
1987 North Hills
Former North Hills coach Jack McCurry stands by what he insisted about his 1987 team in the seasons that immediately followed that remarkable campaign.
“I saw the 70s, 80, 90s into 00s, but really no one was even in the same ballpark as this group,” said McCurry, who coached the Indians from 1978 to 2012. “The team that could beat that particular (1987) team hasn't been assembled yet.”
McCurry realizes the boldness of that declaration after almost three decades, but believes the Indians' achievements back it up. In a 13-0 season that concluded with a WPIAL Class AAAA title and a No. 1 ranking in the country by USA Today, North Hills outscored opponents 435-20 with 11 shutouts — the 20 points allowed came against reserves.
Senior tight end/linebacker Eric Renkey received a Parade All-American nod before attending Penn State.
“I can still remember if a team got two first downs in a row, we'd start looking around like, ‘What the (heck) is going on?' ” Renkey said. “We had a lot of people who had the same sort of ideas about what type of football to play, as far as being physical. … If you scored a touchdown, that was nice, but what got respect was a big hit or going 20 yards downfield to make a big block.
“There was also a certain level of brutally honest feedback coming from the coaching staff. There was no sugarcoating when you made something other than a perfect play. I'm not sure that style of coaching is allowed anymore, because of concern for players' feelings. But that was the way I wanted to be coached.”
Other senior stars from that team included wide receiver/defensive back Chris Cisar, who went to Penn State, and lineman Gary Gorajewski, who played at Pitt. But McCurry and Renkey emphasized that the team's collective talent and menacing mentality, more than its individual stars, made the Indians so memorable.
“Lavar (Arrington) was a Parade All-American and its Player of the Year (in 1996), and he played on our state championship team as a freshman, but there's no one athlete at that highest level that can beat a team of tremendous athletes,” McCurry said. “He wouldn't have been able to lead that team he had to a win against the '87 team.”
The '87 North Hills team was the only football team inducted in the WPIAL Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 2007.
If not for the creation of the PIAA playoffs in 1988, that year's Aliquippa team might produce as much of a legendary aura as any in WPIAL history.
Alas, the Quips' pursuit for perfection ended with a 13-0 loss in the Class AAA state title game to Berwick in a battle of two USA Today top-5 teams in the country.
That defeat, which former coach Don Yannessa and his players tend to acknowledge when discussing the season, took a little luster off what had been a sensational season for a star-studded group of Quips, who finished with a 14-1 record and outscored opponents 421-101. The Quips climbed as high as No. 2 in the USA Today rankings.
“I was glad we had the opportunity,” Yannessa said of the PIAA playoffs. “I thought we were without a doubt the best Triple-A program in Western Pennsylvania for a period of time, and no question that Berwick was the class of Triple-A in the eastern part of the state. We didn't lose to anybody that didn't come with a reputation.”
Aliquippa, which won the middle of three straight WPIAL titles in 1988, let future St. Louis Rams first-round draft pick Sean Gilbert induce terror on ball carriers as a linebacker. Gilbert, later a Pitt standout, made 91 solo tackles and assisted on 37 stops in a senior campaign that earned him USA Today's Defensive Player of the Year award.
Along with Gilbert, offensive lineman Mark Hilliard received an Associated Press Big School All-State first-team nod, while running back Willie Lindsey and wide receiver Terry Patrick landed on the second-team and honorable mention lists, respectively.
All this talent in one class emerged from a “Big School” with an enrollment that actually sat close to the Class AA/A cutoff line — the Quips, then as now, willingly played up.
“We took that as a badge of courage,” Yannessa said. “We told them that shows the kind of players you really are. I always knew it wasn't about how many ate in the cafeteria at the school. It was about who showed up for the game.”
Bring up the 1994 McKeesport state championship run and it's pretty likely the first thing that's mentioned is the goal line stand — as in Brandon Short and the goal-line stand against Downingtown and star running back Aaron Harris.
Short, who had one of the best defensive performances in state playoff history, prevented nationally ranked Downingtown from scoring on three consecutive plays in the fourth quarter of the Class AAAA championship game at a rainy and cold Mansion Park Stadium filled with 52 bus loads of McKeesport fans that propelled the Tigers to a perfect 15-0 season and a No. 5 national ranking by USA Today with a 17-14 win.
“Those two met at the goal-line two or three times in a row during a critical drive and Short won the battle each time,” McKeesport coach George Smith said.
Short, who went on to play at Penn State and the NFL, made three tackles at the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, the final one on a controversial call that the referees ruled that Bryn Boggs didn't cross the goal line, to preserve a 10-7 lead.
Downingtown eventually took the lead midway through the fourth, but Bill Isbir's 11-yard touchdown run with 2:44 left — two plays after Glenn Allen ripped off a 31-yard run — gave McKeesport a 17-14 lead.
Arlen Harris fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and it was recovered by Keonte Campbell to put a cap on McKeesport's first undefeated season since 1936.
“That kind of sealed the deal,” Smith said.
McKeesport was led by a stingy defense (four shutouts) that year that played its best in the playoffs.
The Tigers' playoff run included wins over Greensburg Salem (14-0), Connellsville (14-7) and Upper St. Clair (21-14) for the first WPIAL title in 56 years, as well as Erie Central (7-6) and nationally ranked Downingtown (17-14) despite losing two starting linemen before the playoffs.
McKeesport finished the season allowing 7.8 ppg.
Eight Jeannette teams have been named WPIAL champions.
The 1932 team was co-champions with McKeesport and New Castle, the 1956 team with Dick Hoak had six Division I players, and the 1983 team had four Division I players. The other titles were in 1939, 1971, 1981 and 2006.
But the 2007 team was something special. It set a record for points (860) in a season and “mercy-ruled” 14 of 16 opponents.
What the team did to WPIAL Class AA powers Aliquippa and Beaver Falls on consecutive weeks was amazing. The Jayhawks, led by the nation's top recruit Terrelle Pryor, defeated Aliquippa, 70-48, in the WPIAL semifinals and Beaver Falls, 61-12, in the finals.
The team scored more than 49 points in 12 games.
“We were on a mission,” Jeannette tackle Jason Marquis said. “We wanted to get back to the state championship game. Everyone played well and the offensive line opened huge holes. We weren't going to be denied.”
The Jayhawks led 42-6 at halftime. They took advantage of great field position to race out to a 21-0 lead.
Jordan Hall scored three times, and Pryor scored twice and threw two touchdown passes.
“Our goal was to try to establish something early and shorten the game a bit, but it turned out to be the longest first quarter of my life,” Beaver Falls coach Ryan Matsook said. “They are the best football team that I've seen thus far in my coaching career.”
Jeannette outgained Beaver Falls, 429-152, and the defense held Beaver Falls running back Todd Thomas to 18 yards on 10 carries.
“We had a lot of great players, especially the defensive line,” Marquis said. “Me, Big C (Chris Hall) and Montel Walker dominated the middle which allowed the linebackers to make plays. We had 11 guys on defense who were hungry to make plays.”
Other stars were linebackers Adam Lock, James Derry and Mike Matt and defensive backs Moziah Harris, Kenny Grant, Dane Vaughn and Toddy Harris.