It was easy to count the Bulldogs out.
Shady Side Academy started the season 1-4. Granted, they faced two Class 4A teams to begin the season, but, when the Bulldogs found themselves in that hole, it would have been easy to let the season go.
“I give a great deal of credit to the character of our kids,” Shady Side coach Chuck DiNardo said. “I have been around high school football long enough to see when a team starts out 1-4, it is really easy for kids to just start thinking ‘basketball season is only a month away. Maybe we can pack up the tent now and start getting ready for hoops.’”
Instead, the Bulldogs battled their way through a tough Class 3A Allegheny Six Conference schedule.
In fact, Shady Side Academy has won six games in a row, including a huge 31-17 win against Elizabeth Forward Friday to send the Bulldogs to the WPIAL semifinals for the first time since 2008. It is also DiNardo’s first time in the semifinals as a head coach.
“It was a big win,” he said. “It was a great Friday night for our kids, and for our program as well.”
Adversity is nothing new for Shady Side. While no one on the team will make any excuses, they came into the season dealing with injuries. They struggled early on. Then, just when things were going right for the team, senior quarterback Max Wickland sustained a season-ending injury in Week 9.
No matter … the team with that dog in them battled through.
Freshman Devin Harris stepped in and the team never missed a beat.
“I certainly think it is a tall order for him,” DiNardo said. “Nobody really blinked on the team. We haven’t changed too much in terms of what we like to do and who we are. We have all the confidence in the world in Devin. We have let him take control of the offense. In his first two starts, he has done an outstanding job.”
Harris has a live arm, he reads the defense well, and he makes good decisions in the heat of the moment.
What makes his job a bit easier is a stout defense. Nate Mallory, Noah Yeh, Nate Ewell and Joey Bellinotti star on the defensive side of the ball. Mallory had two interceptions Friday to help put away an Elizabeth Forward team that beat Shady Side, 41-21, in Week 3.
“Nate took on the responsibility of taking on Zach Boyd, who is an outstanding wide receiver,” DiNardo said. “Nate really embraced that challenge. He followed him everywhere across the field. His two interceptions last week, I think, were gigantic. … I have to give it to Nate on that one. That was awesome.”
The team no one thought would be here has battled through as much adversity as any team in the Steel City.
After the rough start, they bought in.
“When we were 1-4, after we lost to Freeport, we were kind of in a rough spot,” DiNardo said. “We all came together and had a team meeting. We decided we are going to do everything we can to win out and go into the playoffs and be the team that nobody wants to face. I think that is exactly what we did.”
The Bulldogs (7-4) face Avonworth (10-1) in the WPIAL Class 3A semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday at Fox Chapel.
“I think this is the best team that we are going to face all year, and we are going to have to have our best 48 minutes for that,” DiNardo said. “This is a stage that they are familiar with. I know with their coaching staff, they will be well prepared. We can look at these guys across the board and you see they are big boys. … It seems like they have 19 tight ends on the field at any given time. All of these guys are really athletic.”
The team that last won a WPIAL championship in 1997 is looking to add a second title to its school history this Friday.
“I think all those difficulties at the beginning of the year are exactly why we are where we are right now,” DiNardo said. “That game on Friday night against Elizabeth Forward, we kind of had a measuring stick from the first time we played them. It shows how much better we have gotten and how much growth we have shown over the last two months.
“We were always a good team. We just may not have had the season to get the seeding that we probably deserved. We made our bed and we have to lay in it. But really, I wouldn’t trade those mistakes from the beginning of the year, because that is what put us where we are right now.”