PITTSBURGH - Prior to kickoff, the match up between West Allegheny and Hopewell was billed more as a battle between the top two running backs in the WPIAL more so than a battle of two teams.
And the two backs - Hopewell's Rushel Shell and West Allegheny's Mike Caputo - didn't disappoint.
Shell outgained Caputo 274 to 178. Each back scored four touchdowns for his respective team.
But when it came down to it, the difference in the game came down to an unheralded player: West Allegheny's Jared Buck.
As a quarterback, Buck called his own number in the third quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run that proved to be the game-winner. As a defensive back, Buck broke up a pass headed towards Hopewell receiver Mark Ross in the last minute of the game that would have been the potential game-tying touchdown.
Buck's efforts propelled West Allegheny (11-2) to a WPIAL title, knocking off Hopewell (12-1), 36-28.
"I've been waiting for this since I was six years old," Buck said. "It means a lot to me. Waiting 12 years and being able to experience this, it's indescribable."
West Allegheny operated most of the day in the Wildcat offense, opting to direct snap to Caputo and limiting Buck's time under center.
"Here's your starting quarterback who's thrown for 14 touchdowns and he got how many plays at quarterback today?" West Allegheny head coach Bob Palko said of Buck. "And it didn't even faze him, because it's about the win."
Caputo's 178 yards came on 25 carries, the most important of which came on a 35-yard run in the third quarter that set up Buck's scoring run.
"He's a tough a kid as I've ever coached," Palko said of his running back. "In our terms, he's a war daddy. … He gets hurt, he gets banged, but I don't think he gets tired."
"He's a heck of a player, and you've seen him do this to a lot of different teams," Hopewell head coach Dave Vestal said of Caputo. "It was tough. We thought if we could get a stop, maybe a turnover, that we could score again. We really felt that way."
Meanwhile, Shell put up his 274 yards on 42 carries. But amongst those 42 carries were four fumbles. Only one was recovered by West Allegheny, but it came at a pivotal point in the game, as the Vikings were in the midst of a potential scoring drive late in the third quarter at the Indians' 18 yard line.
"I don't know what happened," Shell said of the fumbles. "Those are mistakes I guess I have to work on."
Hopewell was forced to play catch up as West Allegheny took a 15-0 lead in the first quarter, after Hopewell quarterback Matt Hundenski threw an interception on the team's first possession of the game. One play later, Caputo ran in from 12 yards out. Then after forcing a three and out, West Allegheny put together a 10 play, 55-yard drive capped by Caputo's second touchdown run, a five-yarder.
But Hopewell rallied late in the first half, as Shell scored on a 6-yard run on the final play before the break, cutting the West Allegheny lead to 29-14. Then on the Vikings' first possession of the second half, Shell scored again, this time on a 4-yard run, to come within eight. But that was as close as Hopewell would come for the rest of the night as the teams exchanged touchdowns before the game's end.
"We turned the ball over, we got down, but we fought back. We kept answering," Vestal said. "That says a lot about our kids. They have a lot of resolve and they kept fighting."
And Palko admitted that while the two star running backs dominated the headlines, it was the other battle in the trenches that won them the title.
"The best talent doesn't always win games, but I think the best teams do," Palko said. "And these guys I think were the poster child for that."