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Top 5 WPIAL storylines from 2018

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Ringgold coach Mike Zmijanac goes over a kickoff plan with Rams kicker Wyatt Kaufman during practice Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, at Ringgold.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
West Alllegheny head coach Bob Palko coaches his final game for the Indians during the WPIAL Class 5A championship game against Penn Hills Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, at Norwin High School.

The 2018 high school sports year is in the books.

As we eagerly look ahead to 2019, let’s reflect on the WPIAL sports scene over the past 12 months.

There were plenty of first-time WPIAL team champions such as Our Lady of the Sacred Heart football, Shenango girls track and North Catholic girls volleyball. There was a new site for the softball finals as Seton Hill hosted for a year while renovations took place at Cal (Pa.).

Several dynasties continued their WPIAL championship ways, including No. 15 in a row for Sewickley Academy boys tennis, 12 straight for Burrell wrestling and the seventh consecutive year for the North Allegheny boys and girls swimming teams.

Here is a look back at five of the top WPIAL stories from 2018:

5. A season of firsts

It’s always exciting when a program wins its first WPIAL championship. How about four first-time titles at the same venue?

It happened this spring in district baseball at Wild Things Park in Washington.

Canon-McMillan and Vincentian Academy won PIAA gold in the past, but neither had won a WPIAL baseball championship until the Big Macs edged North Allegheny, 2-1, to win the Class 6A crown, and the Royals beat Union to win Class A.

North Hills edged Mars, 2-1, in an 11-inning instant classic in the Class 5A finals.

Brownsville knocked off Avonworth, 5-2, in Class 3A.

South Fayette won in Class 4A and North Catholic in 2A to avoid a first-time winner’s sweep. It was the Lions’ second title and the Trojans’ third.

The four first-time WPIAL champions was the most in one season in WPIAL history.

4. Not going quietly

The winningest championship coach in WPIAL football history was getting ready to hang it up.

Bob Palko announced after last season ended that the 2018 campaign would be his last at West Allegheny.

West Allegheny even announced Kim Niedbala as co-coach with Palko for the 2018 season before Niedbala would take over in 2019.

While the Indians weren’t on a lot of preseason radars in Class 5A, they scratched and clawed their way to a Class 5A Allegheny Eight Conference co-championship with Peters Township and earned the No. 4-seed in the playoffs.

In the first round of the WPIAL playoffs, West Allegheny shut out Shaler 37-0 before holding on to edge Woodland Hills 14-13 in the quarterfinals.

Nobody gave the Indians a chance against No. 1 and defending champion Gateway, but the Indians refused to lose. Driven by winning title No. 8 for their coach, they stunned the Gators, 42-28.

The storybook ending was not a golden one though as West Allegheny lost to Penn Hills, 28-18, in the 5A finals closing the book on one of the great coaching careers in WPIAL history.

Perhaps we find out in 2019 how long that book will remain closed.

3. Out of this world basketball

For years, the boys and girls basketball teams at Mars have been good to very good. In 2018, Mars became the golden planet.

The Mars boys basketball team won a PIAA championship to close out the 2016-17 season after falling short in the district playoffs. Then-junior Robby Carmody led the way to a state title, but he knew there was one more thing to accomplish before he took his talents to Notre Dame.

After falling short in his first three years, Carmody finally led his team to a coveted WPIAL title.

The Planets came up big as Mars downed Franklin Regional, 54-44, to win the 5A championship before losing to Abington Heights in the PIAA finals.

The girls team got hot after losing to Oakland Catholic in the WPIAL semifinals.

Five wins later, including a 36-33 upset of District 12 champion Archbishop Wood, a Mars basketball team was on top of the world.

2. Here, there and everywhere

In 1996, Johnny Cash released an album that contained his version of an old country music song titled “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

That might be the new theme song for Mike Zmijanac.

He started the year as football coach of a school in Beaver County, ended up coaching during the season at a school in Washington County and then was hired before the year ended to coach a school in Allegheny County.

In February, the Aliquippa school board opened the job after Zmijanac won 237 games in 21 season. The move stunned many as the Quips finished 12-1 with the only loss coming in the title game to Quaker Valley, 2-0.

Ten straight trips to the WPIAL championship game was not enough to save his job at Aliquippa, but Zmijanac wasn’t out of a job long.

Ringgold hired him as their new coach in the spring. The season was a major struggle for the Rams though as they finished 0-10 and were outscored 511-26 with seven shutout losses.

Zmijanac resigned for personal reasons shortly after the season ended.

Then in mid-December, Seton LaSalle announced the hiring of Zmijanac, his third job in 2018.

1. The debate rages on

It has been a debate for decades.

Is it fair that private schools with no boundaries to draw student-athletes compete with public schools with strict district boundaries?

That debate was rarely more than interesting conversation before 2018, when the topic gained momentum. Committees were formed, state lawmakers took part in talks and the PIAA had the final word late in the year.

The subject resurfaced in a big way in the spring when a late-season transfer from another state helped the Neumann-Goretti girls basketball team convincingly win another PIAA Class 3A state championship.

The WPIAL released in May a survey sent to its 137 members. Of the 108 schools that responded, 86 percent stated they were in favor of conducting separate championships.

What started with six Pennsylvania high school superintendents grew quickly and, when they met in July, more than 100 schools and 250 participants were involved in the push to separate public and private schools in the postseason.

The PIAA responded by adding layers to the state transfer rule in the summer, but this did not slow down the efforts of school administrators looking to solve what they perceive was a major problem that a transfer rule would not solve.

While the push continued into the fall, the PIAA met with administrators and ruled the state’s governing body would not make any changes because of the 1972 state law Act 219 that paved the way for private schools to join the public schools in the association.

Thus the only way a change would take place in the boundary school vs. nonboundary school debate would be in the future through the state legislature.

Don Rebel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Don at .

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