If you take a minute to stop and survey the Class 1A landscape over the past two months, the warning signs are everywhere.
Beware of the Bears.
After an 0-2 start to the season that saw No. 4 Clairton fail to score a point in back-to-back weeks against Class 2A powerhouses Westinghouse and Washington, some were quick to write off the Bears and dub 2023 as another “down year” for one of the WPIAL’s proudest programs. After all, they hadn’t played for a WPIAL title since 2020 and hadn’t won one since 2019 — only a few short years to most schools but practically an eternity by Clairton’s lofty standards.
Fast forward to the first round of the WPIAL playoffs, and few teams in the area are riding more momentum than these fast-charging Bears (8-2, 6-0) going into a first-round matchup against No. 13 Laurel at the Bears’ venerable Neil C. Brown Stadium.
“We were a little short-handed at the beginning of the year for various reasons,” said Clairton coach Wayne Wade. “We persevered through all the adversity, and here we are at 8-2 getting ready to get into the playoffs.”
In 10 years as head coach at his alma mater, Wade has guided the Bears to four WPIAL titles and five trips to the championship game — and prior to that, he spent six seasons as defensive coordinator during Clairton’s incredible 66-game winning streak. As Wade is quick to point out, the Bears have had a habit of front-loading their schedule with the toughest nonconference opponents they can find during his tenure — and whether they win or lose those early-season games is beside the point.
“Our younger kids got that experience, got a chance to play against two quality programs with some tough kids,” Wade said. “Both of those programs [Westinghouse and Washington] are doing well right now. We thought both programs would go undefeated.”
During Clairton’s ensuing eight-game win streak, the Bears have scored 35 or more points seven times and cleared 40-plus points five times. They have only ramped up their offensive output in recent weeks, posting a 50-6 home win against Frazier on senior night on Oct. 20, followed by a 60-14 blowout Oct. 27 at Jeannette to clinch the Eastern Conference title outright. Only one of those games was decided by single digits — an 18-15 win Oct. 13 at Rochester, in a game Wade believes was another crucial barometer for his team heading into the postseason.
“The thing about that is, they did that to us last year. Rochester came down here and beat us last year, when we were controlling the game. I want to say we went into halftime up 26-7 or something, and ended up losing that game,” Wade said. “Having to go way up there — we proved ourselves in [Class] 1A.”
One of only two seniors on the team, quarterback Michael Wright has done an excellent job orchestrating the offense in his first season as a starter. Wright has completed 79-of-124 attempts for 1,329 yards and 14 touchdowns with only three interceptions while doing a great job of spreading the ball around and keeping all of his receivers involved.
Junior wide receiver Zae-mear Correll leads the team with 25 receptions for 476 yards, while sophomores Michael Ruffin (510 yards rushing, 295 receiving, 11 TDs), Donte Wright (444 yards rushing, 162 yards receiving, 7 TDs), Dion Pompey (214 yards rushing, 5 TDs) and Taris Wooding (199 yards receiving, 3 TDs) are each playing key roles on offense as well. But above all else, the driving force behind Clairton’s high-powered offensive attack is junior running back Drahcir Jones.
Last season, Jones rushed for 535 yards on only 60 carries (8.9 ypc), and his yards per carry average so far this fall is nearly identical (8.8 ypc). He has taken on a workhorse role in 2023, though, finishing No. 12 in the WPIAL in rushing during the regular season with 1,266 yards on 144 carries and adding eight receptions for 124 yards with a team-leading 14 total TDs.
“Drahcir has really started running the ball well,” Wade said. “Even in our conference, I guess it hurts us a little bit, because he might only get 5-10 carries in some games. That’s good for us, I guess, because then he flies under the radar.
“A lot of teams don’t know how talented he is.”
Of course, it all starts up front for the Bears, and senior lineman La’zavier Samuel (6-3, 265) is the man in charge of leading the unit that paves the way for Jones and keeps Wright on his feet. Sophomore Chad Carpenter is also a returning starter on the offensive line, and Wade likes what he has seen from the rest of the new faces stepping into the trenches.
With the Class 1A bracket looking as deep as ever, headlined by unbeaten South Side and Fort Cherry at the top, it’s going to be tough just to reach the WPIAL quarterfinals — let alone make it to Acrisure Stadium and win the whole thing. But one thing is certain — you can never count Clairton out.
Just count the 14 WPIAL championship banners hanging at the school for proof.
“We just need to continue what we’re doing,” Wade said. “We’ve had some great weeks of practice the last few weeks, and we just need to continue it. Keep the same intensity, same focus, and make sure we’re prepared for Friday night.”
Layhue, Petrucci keep California cruising into postseason
Quick, which team had the WPIAL’s highest-scoring offense in the regular season?
Many would be quick to guess Central Catholic or North Allegheny, two Class 6A stalwarts that each averaged upward of 45 points per game. Some might even point to Fort Cherry, the undefeated Class 1A title hopeful that averaged 46.8 ppg with super sophomore Matt Sieg leading the way. All three guesses would be wrong, though.
The title of WPIAL regular-season scoring champ in 2023 goes to the California Trojans (9-1, 7-0), as they ended the regular season on a seven-game win streak while scoring 44-plus points in all seven games and eclipsing the 50-point plateau in five of them. For the season, California scored 473 points (47.3 ppg) and allowed only 99 (9.9 ppg), making the Trojans one of only six teams in the area to allow less than 10 ppg.
At the forefront of California’s offensive attack are seniors Jake Layhue (6-4, 205) and Spencer Petrucci (6-0, 170), a talented backfield tandem who combined for 44 rushing touchdowns in the regular season. Layhue is a run-first quarterback who also doubles as a hard-hitting safety, and he tallied 744 yards rushing and 22 TDs on the ground to go with 337 yards passing and a pair of passing TDs. Petrucci, a powerful running back, led the team with 1,340 yards rushing on 155 carries while matching Layhue’s total with 22 rushing TDs of his own.
The Trojans received a No. 6 seed for the playoffs, setting up a first-round matchup against No. 11 Jeannette, one of the WPIAL’s most tradition-rich programs. Many will likely be picking the Jayhawks to pull off the “upset,” as Tri-County South Conference champions are typically viewed as the weakest conference champions in Class 1A. But don’t be surprised to see Layhue and Petrucci lead California on a deep playoff run this season.
Norwin’s QB-WR duo finish atop WPIAL leader boards
The final regular-season statistical leaders are in, and you might be surprised to see some of them.
You might not have guessed it based on Norwin’s 3-7 overall record, but the Knights boasted the WPIAL’s leader in both passing yardage and receiving yardage during the regular season. Engineering Norwin’s up-tempo spread offense like a polished veteran, sophomore quarterback Tristyn Tavares enjoyed a breakout season while passing for a WPIAL-leading 2,459 yards — and he had no shortage of standout receivers at his disposal.
Luke Denny filled in under center last season after Tavares went down with an injury, but it’s clear Denny (6-2, 175) was better suited at wideout. The senior led the WPIAL with 1,046 yards receiving on 44 receptions (23.8 ypc) and was the only WPIAL player to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in the regular season. Also, senior Jackson Pons racked up 34 catches for 588 yards, and sophomore Jake Knight added 30 receptions for 421 yards.
Tavares (5-9, 170) entered the final week of the regular season trailing Central Catholic senior Payton Wehner for the top spot, but his 318-yard performance in a season-ending 41-27 win against Hempfield was good enough to push him to the top of the leader board, beating out Wehner by only 3 yards for the passing yardage crown. He finished his stellar sophomore campaign by completing 145-of-244 passes while throwing 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, and he also added 192 yards rushing and six more TDs on the ground.