Art Walker is a longtime coach with a lengthy list of impressive career accomplishments, but in the past decade, his North Allegheny football program has been associated not with length, but with coming up short.
Since winning three consecutive WPIAL championships from 2010 to 2012 — the last of those teams went unbeaten and won a PIAA title — North Allegheny has failed to win a WPIAL title. The Tigers have been close more than just a few times, too, advancing to at least the semifinals each of the past six seasons. The 2020 season ended with a loss in the championship game.
“I think it’s more frustrating for us as a staff because we were the ones who experienced every single one of those losses,” said Walker, who is in his 18th season. “It’s something we want to accomplish again because it’s the ultimate goal for us. That’s why we work hard and sacrifice our time. That’s why the guys are so dedicated.”
The top-seeded Tigers (10-1) hope that dedication pays off in a big way when they take on No. 3 Central Catholic (7-4) in the WPIAL Class 6A championship at 6 p.m. Saturday at Norwin High School.
In what has been a rather uneven season in the classification, North Allegheny has stood tall despite being picked to finish fourth in the five-team league in the Post-Gazette’s preseason rankings. Each of the other teams has dropped at least two conference games and four games overall, while North Allegheny’s lone hiccup was a 28-17 non-conference loss Sept. 30 to Pine-Richland, which is playing for the WPIAL Class 5A championship.
“They’re very well coached, they’re playing well on defense, and they have some weapons on offense. All around, it’s a solid team,” said Central Catholic coach Terry Totten, one of only nine coaches to win at least six WPIAL titles.
While North Allegheny has been building to end its 10-year title drought, Central Catholic has spent the last month digging — digging out of a large hole. The Vikings have worked feverishly to try to right their season after starting 3-4 and 1-2 in league play, putting them in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 1999. But they rallied to win their final three regular-season games before beating defending PIAA champion Mt. Lebanon in the semifinals. They are now one win away from a third title in four seasons and a sixth since 2013.
“I think there’s a lot of pride in the program,” said Totten, calling this season one of the most challenging of his 18-year career. “The kids sense that they don’t want to lower the standard. They’ve worked hard and dug themselves out of that hole.”
North Allegheny is led by junior Khiryn Boyd, a wide receiver-defensive back. The Tigers try to get the ball to Boyd on offense in a variety of ways, and it’s paid off to the tune of 38 receptions for 581 yards, 18 carries for 270 yards, and a team-best 10 touchdowns. Defensively, Boyd has a team-high six interceptions.
“He’s been tremendous,” said Walker, a five-time WPIAL champ who was the head coach at Central Catholic for seven seasons before taking over at North Allegheny in 2005. “He had a good sophomore year when he battled through an injury. Coming back and understanding things and maturing, he’s had a tremendous year on both sides of the football and on special teams. He’s got to be one of the better players around.”
With junior Logan Kushner (1,263 yards passing, 13 touchdowns), a two-year starter, at quarterback, North Allegheny has had success throwing the ball, but the Tigers also have a strong rushing attack led by senior Andrew Gavlik, who leads the team with 806 yards rushing and has scored four touchdowns.
This will be the second meeting between the teams this season. When they met Sept. 23 at West Mifflin, Kushner scored on a 7-yard run with 6:41 left to provide the winning points. Central Catholic responded by driving to the North Allegheny 19-yard line, but Wehner’s pass was broken up on fourth-and-7 with just under two minutes left. Central Catholic’s only points came on a Billy Lech field goal in the third quarter. Gavlik had a strong game for North Allegheny, running for a career-high 148 yards.
One of Central Catholic’s themes has been “junior achievement,” as several junior playmakers have carved out sizable roles in a dangerous passing attack. Quarterback Payton Wehner is a two-year starter who has thrown for 2,247 yards and 16 touchdowns. His favorite targets have been fellow juniors Vernon Settles (48 receptions, 603 yards) and Pete Gonzalez (35 for 630). Gonzalez, who holds offers from the likes of Pitt, Penn State and Miami, is healthy after missing a few games early in the season while rehabbing from a knee injury. A committee approach at running back is headed by sophomores Amari Shields (491 yards) and Elijah Faulkner (489 yards).
“That game could have gone either way,” Totten said. “They made plays and we didn’t at the very end.”
Chances are this will be another low-scoring affair. North Allegheny is giving up a Class 6A-low 11.4 points a game and blanked Canon-McMillan, 7-0, in the semifinals. Central Catholic is coming off a 28-7 win at Mt. Lebanon. Both of those games were played in heavy rain. There’s no precipitation in the forecast for Saturday, but the temperature at kickoff could be in the 20s.
North Allegheny might not mind some rain, though. After all, it’s trying to end a long drought.
“This group has worked really hard,” Walker said. “They have come a long way, and they have done it together. They have overachieved at times. It would be a fitting end to their high school career to be the Class 6A WPIAL champion.”