Approximately 365 days have passed since Sharpsville and West Middlesex met for the District 10 Class A football championship.
Superficially, not much has changed. The Shenango Valley rivals will square off again 7 p.m. Friday at Slippery Rock University’s Mihalik-Thompson Stadium with the same stakes on the line.
However the defending district titlist Blue Devils — at least by some area aficionados — would be considered the underdog to the reigning Region 1-A champion Big Reds.
“I think it’s just two good teams going at each other. Like the old adage, ‘When two rivals get together you can throw everything out the window,’ ” offered West Middlesex mentor Jason McElhaney.
“At this point, they’re ten-and-one; we’re ten-and-two. When you look at us statistically, we’re pretty similar, and both teams are very similar in that we’re both very senior-heavy teams. Both sides have a lot of experience, both sides have playmakers on both sides of the ball.
“It should be a really even match with two good teams. A fun atmosphere,” McElhaney mused.
Fun is a relative term, however. For the Black-and-Blue Devils it’s been challenging to churn out healthy bodies on a weekly basis. Sharpsville (10-1) was short a pair of starters before the season started with Joey Flynn and Greg Popatak incurring injuries. Now it will be without center/linebacker P.J. Campoli, who suffered a broken leg last week.
“He’s like the quarterback on our offensive line, calling the signals. It’ll be difficult replacing him,” admitted Sharpsville skipper Paul Piccirilli, who continued, “but the one nice thing: Though the injuries definitely hurt us, our kids are very versatile. We train them from the beginning to play two positions, so we have guys who’ll step in. Will they be as good? Probably not. But as long as we have someone, we have a chance.”
Conversely, the Big Reds are healthy.
“We’ve been very fortunate thus far,” McElhaney related. “Bumps and bruises, but we’ve been pretty lucky to be where we’re at.”
Actually, Middlesex mustered a key addition since last season. The Big Reds’ run to the program’s best season since 2006 has been due, in part, to a defense led by Luke Patten and newcomer Davey Cox.
“With Patten, it’s not just the tackles he makes, but he’s our quarterback over there (defense),” McElhaney explained. “And we’ve gotten a big boost along the defensive line with Davey Cox. He didn’t play last year, but came back this year and he’s been a really good addition to the middle of our defense.
“It’s been a group effort, but it starts with Luke and the improved defensive line play that’s helped us become a better overall unit,” McElhaney added.
In its two tournament triumphs Middlesex manhandled Iroquois (75-13) and Farrell (42-0). After an opening-round rout of the Redbirds of Cochranton (42-6), Sharpsville surrendered Blake Reddick’s 243-yard, 3-touchdown rushing performance before outlasting Lakeview (41-34).
Of more significance, during the regular-season meeting with Middlesex the Blue Devils were down 21-0 before a 2nd-half comeback bid fell shy (21-14).
“Our kids have to play with more emotion than the first half (against West Middlesex) and the whole game against Lakeview,” Piccirilli related. admitting. “It’s very difficult to understand why our kids can’t get fired up. But we’ll need more emotion and more discipline on defense.”
In its earlier win West Middlesex was led by quarterback Trey Staunch, who ran for 2 TDs and distributed to a half-dozen targets for 93 yards passing.
“One thing we learned (from that loss) was they are very athletic and they mix it up well,” Piccirilli related regarding the Reds. “You can’t guess, which makes it more difficult. They’re super athletes, their line is more than adequate. ... You can’t go guessing; you have to stay in your lanes because they (Patten, particularly) cut back very well, and when you read pass, you have to drop back and cover your zone,” Piccirilli continued. “If we can do that, we’ll give ’em a game.”
McElhaney admitted, “I’m really, really happy with how (the Big Reds) played on both sides of the ball (against Farrell). We had a really, really good defensive effort ... and offensively we executed and did what we wanted to do and took care of the football.
“We’ve been pretty solid doing that this year (4 interceptions, 9 lost fumbles in 12 games), and we’re gonna need to do that (Friday night),” McElhaney added.
Sharpsville has secured 7 district championships — 6 (’97, ’99, ’00, ’01, ’04, ’11) produced by the Piccirilli-led (153-50) program. Meanwhile, Middlesex manufactured 3 in a 5-year span, but has not won since ’06. But the Reds have returned to the title tilt under 6th-year mentor McElhaney (36-28).
“It’s been a fun ride with these guys, I’ve enjoyed coaching them. It’s a really fun group to be around, very coachable,” McElhaney mentioned. “Whatever happens Friday night, happens. I always tell the kids, no matter what, if they give a hundred percent effort, there’s no way I’ll be mad or disappointed
“But I feel this group — I know them well enough — and they’ll leave everything on the field. Aand win or lose I’m proud of this group.
“It’s been great, in the sense, these seniors, the staff has seen them grow and mature into the men they are,” McElhaney continued. “It’s always great when you see guys grow up, but this is a special group to us.”
For Piccirilli, last year’s 13-win season ultimately shortcircuited by Clairton in the western regional championship game seems long ago.
“Losing nine starters on one side of the ball and at least eight on the other side, I don’t know who would’ve picked us. We had West Middlesex winning the region and district, without a doubt,” Piccirilli began. “But we’re proud and honored to be recognized as one of the better teams and to be in this position.
“With them only losing a couple guys (to graduation) and beating us, they’ve gotta be feeling pretty good about themselves,” Piccirilli said regarding the Reds. “They’ve been on a high all year, from the Wilmington game (13-10 season-opening road loss to the D-10 AA finalists) they’ve been on a roll, so I’m sure they’re not worked up about with what we’re doing ...
“If we can come out and somehow control the ball and score, something we didn’t do the last time,” Piccirilli recalled. “We had the ball for something like eighteen of the first twenty-one plays (against Middlesex) and didn’t score. Then we turn over the ball and they scored right away (Austin Mirizio 12-yard run). That turned the tide right there.
“All we ask our kids is to get us into the fourth quarter with a chance, and hopefully we’ll make the adjustments to get us over the top,” Piccirilli professed, adding, “but our big-play kids have gotta keep making big plays — Tyler Luchey, Bryan Stafford, Ross Llewellyn (Stafford and Luchey collaborated for 9- and 25-yard 2nd-half TD tosses against Middlesex).
“And, “ Piccirilli added, “we’re gonna need some help from West Middlesex; we’re gonna need some turnovers.”
For McElhaney and Middlesex, the past calendar year has seemed like a lifetime.
“We definitely wanted to get back here, have a shot at getting the trophy. A regular-season or region (1-A) title’s nice, but the ultimate goal was to get back to the Friday after Thanksgiving and have the opportunity to get that District 10 trophy, then go from there and get to the state tourney,” McElhaney mused, continuing,
“This is where we wanted to be at this point, but we want to be the guys holdling the trophy, instead of the guys watching (the trophy presentation).
“It remains to be seen how we’ll reflect (on the 2012 season), but hopefully that won’t be for four weeks, or so,” McElhaney concluded.
“One nice thing about our kids,” Piccirilli said. “Until you tell them there’s no more time left on the clock or too many points (to overcome), they believe they can win.”
Note: The game will be broadcast on ESPN 96.7 (WLLF FM), with Ryan Briggs and Bob Greenburg calling the action. The pre- and post-game shows, hosted by Jeff Greenburg, will be simulcast (also NewsTalk 790, WPIC AM), beginning at 6:05 and 9:30 p.m., respectively.