There isn’t much more to say about the upcoming PIAA Class 2A championship that hasn’t already been said.
The matchup between District 4 powerhouse Southern Columbia and City League champion Westinghouse at 1 p.m. Friday is one that few would have ever thought possible. You couldn’t write it in a movie script without being laughed out of the room. With Pennsylvania’s preeminent football factory taking on an inner-city school that had never qualified for the PIAA playoffs until 2021, the outcome should be pretty much decided, right?
Not so fast.
Despite the massive disparity in funds, resources, facilities and overall football legacy between the two schools, this one doesn’t feel like the “David vs. Goliath” mismatch it might appear to be on paper.
Sure, Westinghouse remains the clear underdog in the minds of virtually every observer, just as it has been for much of this state playoff run. But make no mistake, these Bulldogs are no whimpering puppies — and their bite is vicious.
“We take pride in doing things that other people aren’t willing to do,” Westinghouse coach Donta Green said. “We don’t have lights at our field, and our field is mainly dirt, not a lot of grass. … Once it gets dark, one of our coaches or our field guy will pull a car around and turn the lights on, and we practice.
“We don’t have a plush field and beautiful lights where we can practice all through the night. I think it creates a certain type of grit. But we’re going to work with what we have and not make excuses.”
While the Tigers (12-3) lost three regular-season games for the first time since 2009 after posting a combined record of 75-1 from 2017-21 — yes, you read that right — the Bulldogs (14-0) have looked every bit the part of a dominant championship contender from start to finish. They own blowout wins against PIAA Class 1A finalist Steelton-Highspire (39-18, Sept. 2), District 10 champion Farrell (34-6, Nov. 26) and WPIAL Class 2A champion Steel Valley (26-7, Dec. 2), among many others. Their scoring offense (44.1 ppg) and scoring defense (8.1 ppg) each rank No. 1 among all WPIAL and City League teams.
Still, this is uncharted territory for Westinghouse as only the third City League team to reach a state final and the first since Perry in 1997. On the other hand, Southern Columbia is playing in the state title game for the eighth year in a row and the 21st time overall. The Tigers have won 12 PIAA titles, more than any other school.
You might even say they consider Hershey, Pa., a second home — although this year’s title games will be played just down the turnpike at Cumberland Valley High School.
“It’s a tribute to the people in the program. Because it would have been easy to just lose that edge and lose your focus,” said Southern Columbia coach Jim Roth, the winningest coach in Pennsylvania history with a career record of 483-67-2. “We’re not used to losing three regular-season games. I thought that our coaching staff and the players really did a good job of staying committed and focused on just improving and getting better.”
It’s not just that the Tigers are always in the state finals and always winning — it’s the way they win that is so spectacular. Of their six PIAA championship wins in the past seven years, none of them were decided by less than 28 points. The closest was a 42-14 win vs. Wilmington in 2020. Last year, they beat WPIAL champ Serra Catholic, 62-25, and in 2019, they throttled undefeated WPIAL champ Avonworth in a record-setting 74-7 rout.
Then again, every year brings a new team and lineup of players in high school football. And although Southern Columbia is on a roll now, there’s no doubt this is the most vulnerable the Tigers have appeared come playoff time since losing to Steel Valley in the 2016 PIAA Class 2A championship.
That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are going to take them lightly, of course. Just don’t expect them to show any fear when staring into the eyes of the mighty Southern Columbia dynasty.
“Like I told my guys, this isn’t a field trip for Westinghouse. This isn’t a feel-good story for Westinghouse,” Green said. “We’re going into this game preparing to win this game. The kids are confident, the coaches are confident, and anything less than a win would be a disappointment in my eyes.”
While the Tigers might feel a bit lucky to be back in another title game after their early season slip-ups, all the stars have aligned for Westinghouse to get to this point. With a deep, experienced senior class leading the way and tons of talent at every position group, the Bulldogs have executed flawlessly every step of the way to make it happen. The term “team of destiny” is overused in sports, but if there ever were a season for Westinghouse to make it this far, this is the one.
Bulldogs quarterback Keyshawn Morsillo is one of the top dual-threat QBs in the state, with 34 passing touchdowns and 14 rushing touchdowns going into the championship. Khalil Taylor is coming off back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against Farrell and Steel Valley, and wide receivers Sincere Smith, Davon Jones and Taymir O’Neal provide Morsillo with a handful of big-play threats to spread the ball around to.
And if that’s not enough, Westinghouse features a ferocious line led by seniors Donte Taylor and Terel Searcy, and the battle in the trenches will most likely determine who comes out on top Friday, as it so often does.
“We’re not dominating anybody up front. We’re pretty small up front. Our offensive line has played very well, especially late in the year and through the postseason, but we’re smaller than a lot of teams we play,” Roth said. “When you know you’re smaller than the other team, you’re always concerned.”
Southern Columbia hardly throws the ball at all, but the Tigers surely can run the rock. Maryland recruit Braeden Wisloski leads the team with 1,783 yards rushing and 24 TDs, and Wes Barnes isn’t far behind him with 1,294 yards and 16 scores despite missing a few games with an injury. If they can establish the run and control the line of scrimmage early on, it could bury the Bulldogs into an insurmountable deficit just like Avonworth and Serra fell into in 2019 and 2021.
But maybe, just maybe, if Westinghouse comes out hot and jumps out to an early lead, it could force Southern Columbia to abandon its bread-and-butter run game in order to catch up. That certainly seems like the recipe to a miraculous championship upset for these Bulldogs — if you can even call it an upset.
“I’m actually getting comfortable in the underdog seat,” Green said. “I can’t take anything away from their program. They’ve won five straight, going on six. It would be crazy not to make them the favorite. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what anyone predicts or what anyone says.
“They have to put their 11 against our 11, and we’ll determine who should have been the underdog and who should have been the favorite.”
Green said he expects this week to be an emotional one for his coaches, players and most of all, himself. This is his fourth year as head coach at his alma mater, meaning he will be coaching the seniors he started with as freshmen in 2019 for the final time — and what better way to send them off?
“I’ve been through a lot with these guys. This is my freshman class. This is my fourth year. These are the guys I came in with,” Green said. “I think the main message, the main focus this week, is just finishing.”