For John Franco and the Altoona Area High School football team that he coaches, there wasn't a lot of time to savor the Mountain Lions' win over Connellsville last week.
"It's like anything else in football season. It's the same amount of time you get to enjoy any win," Franco said. "I've always said I never really could enjoy a season until it was over."
However, because the Lions beat Connellsville, the season isn't over. That 27-12 victory qualified them for the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs.
Mirror file photo by J.D. Cavrich
Altoona’s Jake Diviney (left) and Matt Dry tackle Connellsville’s Zachary Cooper.
Now, as the 16th seed, Altoona will try to keep Franco from getting to fully appreciate things for a little while longer by upsetting North Allegheny, the undefeated top seed and No. 1-ranked team in the state, tonight in Wexford.
The 4-5 Lions kick off against the Tigers at 7:30 p.m.
"We have to play our A-plus game, not just our A game," Franco said. "That's a very neat challenge. We're playing the top team in the state, and you always want to test yourself against the best. This is a great opportunity for our kids to go into the playoffs for the first time in five years and go up against the best."
WPIAL Class AAAA at a glance
Seedings: 1. North Allegheny (9-0), 2. Gateway (8-1), 3. Upper St. Clair (8-1), 4. Seneca Valley (8-1), 5. Mount Lebanon (7-2), 6. Penn-Trafford (7-2), 7, Woodland Hills (7-2), 8. McKeesport (5-4), 9. Bethel Park (6-3), 10. North Hills (6-3), 11. Pittsburgh Central Catholic (7-2), 12. Butler (4-5), 13. Hempfield (4-5), 14. Kiski Area (4-5), 15. Peters Township (5-4), 16. Altoona (4-5)
Defending champion: North Allegheny
Most intriguing potential matchups: Bethel Park at McKeesport, North Hills at Woodland Hills and Pittsburgh Central Catholic at Penn-Trafford in the first round; Woodland Hills vs. Mount Lebanon, Woodland Hills vs. Gateway and Central Catholic vs. Upper St. Clair in the quarterfinals; Upper St. Clair vs. Gateway in the semifinals; Upper St. Clair or Gateway vs. North Allegheny in the finals
Sleepers: Bethel Park, North Hills and Pittsburgh Central Catholic
Interesting facts: No team ever has won three straight WPIAL Class AAAA championships. North Allegheny has won the last two. ... Gateway coach Terry Smith is being forced to choose between his athletic director and coaching positions, so his next loss might be his last game coaching the Gators. ... Three of the four lowest seeds are from the Foothills Conference.
District championship game: Nov. 23 at Heinz Field
Mirror's team to beat: North Allegheny
Mirror's West champion: North Allegheny
Mirror's East champion: St. Joseph's Prep
Mirror's state champion: North Allegheny
Altoona comes in having won three of its last four to qualify for the playoffs and is three points away from having won four of five.
"That was one of our goals heading into the season. That was nice for the seniors, especially having so many frustrating games early in the year to put together a couple of good games at the end and to be rewarded," Franco said. "It was nice to see the smiling faces in our senior class."
NA will be trying to make history this postseason by becoming the first WPIAL team to win three consecutive Class AAAA championships. They've set a strong tone by outscoring their opponents, 355-37. Six of those games were against playoff teams.
The Tigers' most highly touted player is Patrick Kugler, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound lineman who is headed to Michigan and whose father is offensive line coach with the Steelers. However, this is a very different style of North Allegheny team than those Tiger coach Art Walker has put on the field in the past - Stephen F. Austin recruit Mack Leftwich, whose dad is a college assistant at Arizona, is sixth in the WPIAL in passing with 1,725 yards. Gregg Garrity has 33 receptions for 667 yards and caught four TDs in the second quarter of 42-0 win over playoff-bound North Hills last week.
The Tigers don't have a 900-yard rusher.
"There are a couple of guys who can catch the ball, and we can spread things out a little bit," said Walker, who also gets top junior Elijah Zeise involved in the passing attack, "but we still have the ability to run it."
Walker acknowledged there was a lot of pressure to have a big year, but he felt a positive tone was set in beginning in the offseason. He was pleased with the chemistry of the team, especially how things came together defensively; Gateway, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Seneca Valley and North Hills combined for six points against NA.
Altoona hopes to put that to the test. The Lions have had more than 300 yards in total offense two of the last three weeks, including a pair of 200-yard passing performances by Brennan Luciano and 11 catches apiece by Jake Diviney and Mante Barnes.
"I think they're well-coached. I have a lot of respect for Coach Franco," Walker said. "You can tell his guys are confident in the things they are doing. They are fundamentally sound. They're physical. They're not a team that's going to stop coming after you."
"It's obvious why they are the No. 1 team in the state and one of the top teams in the country," Franco said of the Tigers. "We have to shorten the game. We can't turn the ball over. If we get opportunities, we have to take advantage of them. We have to keep them from scoring in big-play bursts."