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PSR's High School Football Game of the Week: State College at North Allegheny

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They say that familiarity breeds contempt, and you'd be hard-pressed to find two teams more familiar with each other than North Allegheny and State College. The two perennial quad-A powers will meet for the third time in the past year when they open the 2011 season at Newman Stadium in Wexford on Friday night.

The Tigers and Lions opened the 2010 season in the exact same location, with North Allegheny breezing to a 42-7 win. The teams met again in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs three months later and while that game was a very different story, NA came away with a W once again, riding Vinnie Congedo's 142-yard performance to a 21-7 win.

“We were fortunate enough to beat them twice, so they're going to look to avenge last year,” acknowledged North Allegheny head coach Art Walker, Jr.

While that's most likely the case, State College isn't the only team looking to avenge a loss to the Tigers. North Allegheny rolled to a 15-1 season a year ago, capturing the PIAA Quad-A title with a 21-0 win over LaSalle on Dec. 18.

Several stars from the 2010 championship team have graduated, including record-breaking running back Alex Papson, quarterback Michael Buchert, halfback Matt Steinbeck, receiver Dan Slivka and the dominant offensive line trio of Vince Czerniewski, Justin Haser and Pat Kugler. Defensive losses include Haser and linebackers Kevin Cope and Clay Bunting.

Despite those and other departures, the Tigers long run to the title a year ago produced a plethora of contributors, many of whom return to defend their hard-earned crown.

“Even though they weren't starters last year, as a sophomore (tailback) Alex DeCiantis got a lot of reps, (tailback) Vinnie Congedo got reps and we're fortunate to return our fullback in Nick Passodelis,” Walker said. “Guys are now in roles where they're full time starters instead of part-time players, or back-ups like they were last year. They gained a lot of experience and learned how to play in big games and take on responsibility and all that, so we're hoping that it has a big impact on them in terms of being a lot more mature as players.”

Two new faces will join the talented Tigers backfield in North Hills transfer Isaiah Faulk and junior quarterback Mack Leftwich.

“We have a new quarterback who is a little bit more of a passer, so we should be able to mix things up this year,” said Walker of Leftwich, son of Pitt offensive line coach Spencer Leftwich, and a sophomore back-up on the team that won last year's Oklahoma state championship.

The talented—and deep—backfield will have some experience in front of them, despite losing several starters from the 2010 line.

Returning starters Zach Harvey and Pete Thistle join forces with junior Pat Kugler—who already has scholarship offers from the like of Florida State and Virginia Tech, along with local schools Pitt and Penn State—to lead the way for what should be a potent NA rushing attack once again.

“We're trying to fill the shoes of the guys that we lost up front,” Walker admitted. “If you talk about our tight ends, and us playing two, we kind of lost half of the offensive line, and those guys are all college football players, so they're great players.

“But we've got a lot of experience in the running game.”

Brendan Coniker, who delivered with big plays in the clutch throughout the Tigers' playoff run, adds an experienced threat in the passing game for quarterback Leftwich.

Defensive end Nate Nachazel and linebacker Kevin Clemens lead a defense that will face a stiff test in the opener against a hungry—and wide open—State College offense.

“You're talking about a team that returns a ton of guys from last year and is really a big senior class this year,” Walker said of his team's opening game opponent. “They're more of an open offense, which is something we're going to see within our conference from Seneca Valley and some others as well. They're more of a spread open offense, mix the pass and option, a lot of pistol-type offensive stuff, so they're going to be in a shotgun the whole time. It's a good opening game for us, not only to prepare us but also to evaluate our guys as well. We're going to learn a lot from this game.”

North Allegheny learned a lot about themselves last season as well, including what it means to battle until the end, and how to overcome adversity.

One lesson they've not learned—but soon will—is what it's like to be the hunted, as opposed to the hunter. It's a challenge Walker and his team are embracing.

“We're not going to deny the fact that we won the state championship. It's something that happened and we're going to definitely embrace it,” the head coach said. “But it was last year. Every team is different, the conference is different and every year it starts over. It was a great year for our team, for our school, for our community, so we'll embrace it for the learning experience.”

Which is why he's wary of what lies ahead.

“Winning the state championship last year isn't going to win us any games on Friday nights in 2011.”

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