The Tri-County South Conference has been much-maligned over the last 20 years, and for good reason. The Class A league, which includes the smallest football-playing schools in the WPIAL, recently went four years without producing a single playoff victory. Its record in postseason play is, well, miserable.
Frazier ended the TCS’s skid by advancing to the WPIAL semifinals in 2015, but conference champion Carmichaels lost to Springdale, a team that finished in fourth-place from the Eastern Conference, in the first round of the last year’s playoffs when the Tri-County South went 1-5 in the postseason, the lone win by Fort Cherry over Sto-Rox.
But we’re not here to bash the Tri-County South. In this installement of “5 things we learned from the high school football weekend,” we give props to the small-school conference for a big win Saturday and a big accomplishment Friday night.
1. The Tri-County South’s biggest win since … – Let’s get this out of the way at the start: California is legitimate. The Trojans proved as much Saturday by going to Graham Field in Wilkinsburg and dealing Imani Christian its first loss of the season, 41-26.
California did so by overcoming a 12-point first-half deficit against a team that entered the weekend as the second highest-scoring offense in the WPIAL. California, however, was the highest-scoring team in the WPIAL and showed why over the game’s final 28 minutes, outscoring Imani 33-6.
California’s huge fullback Jelani Stafford, all 263 pounds of him, and quarterback/defensive back Colin Phillips might be the two best players in the area that nobody knew about a month ago. Stafford ran over and through Imani’s defense for 236 yards and Phillips intercepted three passes, ran for one score and passed for another.
There was talk at the beginning of the season that Imani Christian could unseat Clairton as the top team in the Eastern Conference. That might still be possible, but where does that leave California in the Class A landscape? The Trojans have to be considered a serious title contender.
If Imani Christian is as good as some people believe, then where does California’s victory rank among the best regular-season wins for a Tri-County South Conference team? I’d say it was the most impressive since Monessen defeated Sto-Rox, 28-12, Sept. 5, 2003. Sto-Rox finished that year 11-2 and didn’t lose again until the WPIAL championship game against Springdale.
2. Messich knows rushing records – When senior running back Dylan Rush broke the WPIAL single-game rushing record Friday with a 524-yard, 7-touchdown performance in Mapletown’s 48-32 victory over Avella in a Tri-County South Conference game, it completed a rare hat trick for Maples coach George Messich. It marked the third time that Messich, as either a player or coach, has been involved in a record-setting rushing performance.
You might recall that Messich was the starting right tackle for Pitt’s national championship team in 1976. He was on the field when Tony Dorsett broke the NCAA’s career rushing record with a touchdown run at Navy. Messich later coached Mapletown’s Derek Bochna when the latter set the WPIAL career rushing record in 1989 at 4,793 yards. Both the Dorsett and Bochna records have since been broken, but it could take some time for Rush’s mark to be eclipsed.
According to Mapletown’s veteran statistican Chris Bates, who has been totaling numbers at high school football games for 40 years, Rush had 263 yards on 23 carries at halftime Friday, when Mapletown led 24-14. After a two-yard run on his first carry of the second half, Rush had consecutive carries of 72, 42 and 64 yards – each a touchdown – to give him 443 yards on 27 carries and the game was still in the third quarter. The WPIAL record of 492 yards, set last year by Armstrong’s Zane Dudek, was within reach and Mapletown was holding only a 16-point lead.
Mapletown, by the way, plays at California Friday night.
3. PT can deliver a knockout punch – When the season began, there was talk throughout the Class 6A Southeastern Conference that Hempfield could win the league title. The Spartans had a high-powered offense and returned plenty of experience, especially at quarterback and receiver. However, Hempfield is 0-2 in the conference and 1-3 overall heading into a game Friday at Peters Township. The Indians (1-1, 3-1) have a chance to end Hempfield’s playoff hopes and boost their own with a victory. A Peters Township win would leave five teams with no more than one conference loss and only four will make the playoffs. PT’s defense has proven to be better than many people expected as the Indians have allowed no more than two touchdowns in three of their four games and are allowing only 14.3 points per game.
4. Interstate traffic jam – If California had the weekend’s best win, then Washington’s 41-0 whitewash of South Park had to be the second-best victory. The Prexies overpowered and dominated South Park in the nonconference game. South Park is currently part of a three-way tie, along with McGuffey and Elizabeth Forward, for first place in the Class 3A Interstate Conference. And the way South Park was handled by a Class 2A opponent – albeit a very good one – you have to wonder if the Eagles are a serious threat to win the conference. That makes McGuffey’s game Friday night at Elizabeth Forward even more appealing. The winner could become the team to beat.
5. Deee-fense – Two of the top-ranked defenses in the WPIAL call the Class 2A Century Conference home. Burgettstown (3-0) has allowed only nine points – one touchdown and one field goal. Only Thomas Jefferson and Keystone Oaks in the WPIAL have yielded fewer points than the Blue Devils. Washington (3-0) is right behind Burgettstown, having given up only 15 points.
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at email@example.com.