For one half, the WPIAL Class AAAA final between North Allegheny and Woodland Hills was the game no one expected. The two teams traded touchdowns, alternating between quick strikes and sustained drives.
But as he wind picked up and the clock wound into the second half, the game started to look like the contest everyone anticipated.
North Allegheny made a 21-14 halftime lead last throughout the second half, beating Woodland Hills to capture its third straight WPIAL Class AAAA title. It's the first time since the classification was formed in 1980 that a team has won the Class AAAA title three straight years.
"To have a group that has done so much over the past three years, for me as a coach it's remarkable to see," North Allegheny coach Art Walker said. "These guys have sacrificed so much and it starts with the players all the time."
Friday afternoon, North Allegheny's charge to another title started with an impressive catch from tight end Zach Lyon. Facing third and 20 from the Woodland Hills 44-yard line, quarterback Mack Leftwich dropped back to pass and looked for an open receiver. He found Lyon open down the middle, and though his pass was a little, Lyon was able to leap up and corral the ball with one hand before taking off for the touchdown.
Woodland Hills took the lead, though, and it appeared the upset might be on. Tom Greene hauled in an 11-yard touchdown from Cody McClennand to tie the game at 7, and after Leftwich fumbled deep in his own territory, Miles Sanders scored on a 1-yard run to give the Wolverines a 14-7 lead.
"I was surprised at how many points were scored in the first half," Woodland Hills coach George Novak said. "Give them credit, they had a great passing game on us."
That passing game went into high gear to close out the second quarter. Leftwich capped a 12-play, 64-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown to Lyon to tie the game back up. Three minutes later, Leftwich found a streaking Gregg Garrity for a 32-yard touchdown.
"Garrity made a heck of a move outside to work inside on the post, and Mack delivered a great ball," Walker said. "I think it was a third look and he had all day."
Novak said Leftwich was the most dangerous quarterback Woodland Hills had faced all year, and defensive lineman Alex Beasley agreed.
"He's a speedy quarterback. He's a shifty guy," Beasley said. "We made some adjustments around halftime, came back out, and we found a weakness in the middle and we exploited that."
Woodland Hills sacked Leftwich six times, but the Woodland Hills offense couldn't make up the deficit. One third quarter drive ended on a fumble and another ended with an interception. Woodland Hills forced a North Allegheny punt with 5:15 left, but the returner muffed the catch and North Allegheny recovered.
The Wolverines eventually got a stop with just over a minute left, but the punt unit was called for encroachment, giving North Allegheny the first down and ending the game.
"It's been kind of the theme with our defense," Walker said. "If we have a lead at halftime, they take it personal that if we shut them out, we're going to win."
There's a school of thought in the region that winning at Heinz Field leads to a WPIAL championship hangover, making it tougher to win later in the state playoffs. North Allegheny's first two WPIAL titles were followed by a PIAA title and a semifinal appearance. Walker isn't concerned that a hangover will await this year's team.
"You want seven more days, you have to win," he said. "I don't think there will be a letdown from our guys. I think they'll understand that this is an unbelievable venue, but there won't be a WPIAL championship hangover."
PaPreps publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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