It’s not unheard of to see two teams meet in the WPIAL championship game in back-to-back seasons, but not all championship rematches are created equal.
WPIAL championship games simply don’t get much bigger than this clash of titans between No. 1 Central Catholic (10-1) and No. 2 North Allegheny (10-1) for Class 6A supremacy at 6 p.m. Saturday. When these two powerhouses collide at Norwin High School almost one year to the date of last year’s Class 6A final, both teams will have revenge on their minds — the Vikings looking to avenge a 35-21 defeat at the very same stadium in last year’s title game, and the Tigers hoping to exact some payback for a 50-22 beatdown at their own home stadium back on Sept. 22.
For eight-time WPIAL champion Central Catholic, the 2023 season has represented a changing of the guard under first-year coach Ryan Lehmeier. The former Pine-Richland and Seneca Valley assistant installed an up-tempo, college-style offense that was in stark contrast to the run-heavy teams Vikings fans were used to seeing under longtime coach Terry Totten. The results were spectacular and instantaneous, as Central stormed right out of the gate with a 43-7 rout at Woodland Hills on opening night and hasn’t looked back since.
“I’m humbled to my core to have the opportunity Central gave me,” Lehmeier said. “I’ve got a lot of really good coaches and some awesome kids and players I get to work with. I’m enjoying every moment of it.”
Entering the weekend, the Vikings own the No. 3 scoring offense in the WPIAL at 45.3 ppg, having scored at least 40 points in 10 out of 11 games despite facing one of the toughest schedules of any team in the state. Central turned heads by scoring 62 points in the first half of an eventual 62-46 win against Bethel Park on Sept. 8, and the Vikings have won by mercy rule in all but one of their 10 victories so far this season.
That being said, the top scoring offense in Class 6A and the No. 2 scoring offense in the district belongs to — you guessed it — North Allegheny. The Tigers (46.3 ppg) are only decimal points behind Class 1A semifinalist Fort Cherry (46.6 ppg) for the title of highest-scoring offense in the WPIAL, having surpassed the 40-point plateau in six consecutive games and nine times overall this season. They have won six games in a row following their blowout loss to Central back in Week 4, with all six wins coming by 28 points or more.
So if you plan on attending this year’s star-studded championship rematch, make sure you get to your seat early — and get your popcorn ready.
“We haven’t really spoken of last year whatsoever,” Lehmeier said. “We’re really focused on this year and this year’s team and the circumstance that we’re in. I think the kids are really looking forward to the opportunity.”
After helping the Vikings beat North Allegheny as a freshman in the 2020 Class 6A final, quarterback Payton Wehner is looking to punctuate a stellar senior season with another win against the Tigers for his second WPIAL crown. Through 11 games in 2023, Wehner has completed 134-of-196 passes for 2,456 yards and 32 touchdowns with only four interceptions, also rushing for 276 yards and five additional TDs. A notoriously tough competitor who plays with a chip on his shoulder, Wehner has orchestrated Lehmeier’s sophisticated spread offense to perfection while making all the right reads and taking what defenses give him.
Leading the charge for five-time WPIAL champion North Allegheny is senior quarterback Logan Kushner, a certified dual-threat QB who rushed for 184 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in last year’s championship clash. As a senior, Kushner has completed 72-of-132 attempts for 1,308 yards and 18 touchdowns to just three interceptions, coupled with 880 yards rushing and another 14 TDs on the ground. Along with his poise and polish as a passer, Kushner’s ability to extend plays with his legs when the pocket breaks down makes him a nightmare for opposing defenses to contain.
“He’s a tremendous player, and he’s a tough kid, too,” Lehmeier said. “I think that definitely adds to the matchup.”
Kushner’s most trusted receiver, senior Khiryn Boyd, is enjoying another standout season after hauling in a pair of long TD receptions in last year’s title game. So far in 2023, the electric playmaker has 22 receptions for 532 yards (24.3 ypc) and 11 TDs, and he is also one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the area. Don’t be surprised to see him matched up in one-on-one coverage on the outside against Central Catholic star receiver Peter Gonzalez on Saturday night.
“We have high expectations for those guys, especially when you’re a senior and you’ve been doing it for three years,” said Tigers coach Art Walker. “Those guys have to have good games and play well and be mistake-free for us to have an opportunity to win it. We’re just proud of them, because they deserve this opportunity. They deserve to be on this stage.
“Now we just want them to make the most of it.”
Speaking of Gonzalez (6-3, 200), the Penn State recruit headlines a trio of talented wideouts for the Vikings along with fellow seniors Vernon Settles and Jacob Sassic. A big, fast, athletic deep threat with great ball skills and body control, Gonzalez has tallied 34 receptions for 891 yards (26.2 ypc) and 12 TDs on the year. Meanwhile, Settles leads the team with 39 receptions for 611 yards and seven TDs, and Sassic has 24 catches for 513 yards and seven scores.
“They’ve got guys everywhere,” Walker said. “They’ve got a lot of talent, and they’ve got a lot of depth. We know that, and we know they’re very good. Obviously, they’ve proven that through the course of the year, and they proved that in our game. We know that it’s going to take a great effort on our part and a collective effort and everybody doing their job on each and every play.”
Although both teams like to air it out, make no mistake about it — they both know how to run the ball, too. Central running back Elijah Faulkner has racked up 1,152 yards rushing and 17 TDs on 165 carries — including a career-high 229 yards and four touchdowns in the first meeting between the teams on Sept. 22 — and North Allegheny senior Tyree Alualu has rushed for 761 yards and 15 TDs on only 81 carries. Junior Conner Frank has been equally efficient carrying the ball for the Tigers, rushing for 668 yards on 68 attempts — making North Allegheny one of only three teams in the area with three players over 600 yards rushing.
For as much fun as it would be to see a high-scoring shootout on Saturday, there are also a handful of impact players on the defensive side of things who would like to spoil those plans. Senior linebackers Cole Sullivan (Michigan) and Anthony Speca (Penn State) provide the Vikings with one of the top linebacker tandems in the country, as Sullivan is generating Player-of-the-Year buzz for his sensational play and Speca is a four-year starter who is now Central’s all-time leading tackler with well over 300 stops. For the Tigers, Marshall recruit Cameron Chmura (6-4, 285) is a two-way stud on the offensive and defensive line who will look to set the tone with his hard-nosed play at the line of scrimmage.
The stars are plentiful and the storylines are endless, with Lehmeier seeking his first WPIAL title in his debut season and Walker going for title No. 7 after winning two at Central in 2003-04 and four more in his tenure at North Allegheny. No matter what happens on Saturday, though, expect to see a game worthy of all the hype and anticipation that will surely come along with it.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, but playing in a game like this never gets old,” Walker said. “You put in a lot of work and a lot of time. We’ve been going after it in some way or another since January. As the season gets closer, you put even more time in. What I think I’ve tried to do is remind myself to enjoy it a little bit more, because you do put so much time and effort into it.
“I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it. Yeah, I’ll be nervous. I think when those feelings go away, then it’s time to get out.”