While the most prepared, talented and, yes, fortunate teams slug their way through the WPIAL playoffs, some schools are in the midst of the less savory business of rebuilding. That includes finding a new football coach at schools such as Ambridge, Moon and Plum, among others, where the coaches won’t be back.
At Ambridge, coach Don Yannessa retired last week after a 37-year high school career, including the past six with the Bridgers.
Replacing such a charismatic figure, who was as close to a legend as a high school coach can be, won’t be easy. The district wants the next coach to possess all of the necessary qualifications, but athletic director Randy Cosgrove said the most important and the one from which the administration won’t budge is this:
“We want the coach to be in this building,” Cosgrove said.
Ambridge hasn’t had so much as an assistant football coach teaching or working in the senior high in the past six years.
Among other things, having a coach walking the halls nine months a year allows him to admonish a player who might have skipped a class, failed a test or missed a weightlifting session. Plus, if the player just wants someone to talk to or a shoulder to lean on, the coach is right there in homeroom, health class or the locker room.
Just like the old days. Just like educators have wanted it for years. Just as it should be.
It’s often tough to find the right person to coach the football team, and then get him a teaching job in the building where the players attend classes, but give the people at Ambridge credit for wanting to make it happen. And they will.
Unfortunately, this probably won’t come as good news to a group of citizens in Ambridge, who want the district to hire former Steelers quarterback Mike Tomczak, who lives nearby, to be the next Bridgers coach.
Tomczak is a good guy, with a smart football mind, who probably could relate well to high school athletes. He also was an unofficial counselor with the Steelers, spending a lot of time one day in front of quarterback Neil O’Donnell ‘s locker after the loss to the San Diego Chargers in the 1994 AFC Championship game. He helped O’Donnell through a rough time and one of the most disappointing losses in franchise history.
Someday, Tomczak might be able to do the same with a 17-year-old quarterback, but it’s not going to happen at Ambridge. Not now.
The quarterfinal round of the WPIAL playoffs was top-heavy with non-competitive routs, but the other end of the spectrum included two of the most entertaining games in recent playoff history.
Of the 16 games in the four classifications, 11 were decided by 21 points or more. Class A had two of them — Clairton 47, Monessen 0; Monaca 48, South Side Beaver 7. Class AAA Blackhawk beat a strong Mars, 47-7.
The games high school fans will remember for a long time also unfolded in AAA.
New Castle beat Indiana, 55-49, combining for 104 points — only 14 short of the total in the 70-48 Jeannette victory against Aliquippa last season in the Class AA playoffs. The big difference is that Jeannette and Aliquippa had Terrelle Pryor and Jonathan Baldwin, who are now starring for Ohio State and Pitt. New Castle and Indiana had no one of the caliber of those stars, only a bunch of determined souls who don’t give up easily.
Nonetheless, the teams combined for 896 yards — 777 on the ground — and 15 touchdowns. Each scored at least once in every quarter.
New Castle’s prize for winning its eighth game in a row: A semifinal date next week with top-seeded Thomas Jefferson, the defending PIAA champion that has a 38-game winning streak against Western Pennsylvania schools.
Then, there was second-seeded Highlands’ 35-34 overtime victory against 2007 Class AAA runnerup Montour.
Two people from that game stand out — Highlands quarterback Jeff Sinclair and Montour coach Lou Cerro. Both displayed bravery in different ways.
Sinclair rushed for 146 yards on 27 carries and scored four touchdowns, including one in overtime, and helped on the biggest defensive play of the game.
“I wasn’t about to go home; no way, not at all,” said Sinclair, whose fist was bloodied by the end of the night.
On the other side of the field, Cerro decided to play for the victory after scoring a touchdown that cut Highlands’ lead to 35-34 in the first and only overtime.
Cerro said he called for the two-point conversion try because he was concerned by how quickly Highlands scored in overtime. He had no taste for a back-and-forth slugfest that would be difficult to win after an exhausting rally from a 20-0 deficit. Cerro saw a chance to win the game, and he refused to let it slip away without trying to seize it.
Give credit to Cerro, one of the good guys of the WPIAL, for having the courage to risk everything in an all-or-nothing play.
“They scored so easy on their possession, we said, ‘We’ll win the game or not win the game right here,’ ” he said.
The play failed, however, when a pitch to Cary Dieter was sniffed out by Ernest Steward and Sinclair, who dropped Dieter just short of the goal line.
Highlands coach Sam Albert summed it up well: “God bless ‘em for going for two,” he said.
This was a game where the fine line between victory and defeat was never finer.
Dinner for Nate
The Friends of Nate committee is planning a spaghetti dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. next Friday at Seneca Valley Senior High School to raise money for football coach Ron Butschle’s 1 1/2-year-old son Nate, who is suffering from a rare form of cancer.
Eat-in dinners are $7 and take-out is $8. There also will be a Chinese auction and 50/50 raffle.
The committee has raised $6,000 to date, with pledges still coming in after Seneca Valley assistant coach Larry Bettencourt ran in the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 12.