Rivals Clairton, Jeannette to again battle for Eastern Conference crown
Does Clairton have a chip on its shoulder?
If you ask Jeannette coach Roy Hall, he feels the Bears do. And in some ways, so does Clairton coach Wayne Wade.
“I guess a lot of people had written us off because we lost three games last year and lost to Jeannette in the semifinals,” said Wade, whose team also lost to Aliquippa and Imani Christian in 2017. “We did graduate a lot (11 or 12 players), but we still had a good group coming back and we had a lot of underclassmen step up. We’ve fought through a lot of adversity. We’re still not 100 percent.”
The Bears have a few players battling injuries, but Wade is high on two young linemen: 6-foot-6, 309-pound sophomore Demetrius Weatherspoon and 6-3, 240 freshman Kanye Hawkins.
Clairton has won 13 WPIAL titles, 10 in Class A, including nine of the past 11 years. The Bears haven’t gone two seasons without winning a title, but they weren’t getting typical preseason praise as the team to beat.
Defending WPIAL and PIAA champion Jeannette, WPIAL runner-up Imani Christian and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart were considered the top teams.
Yet, here they are, undefeated entering the final game of the regular season.
No. 2 Clairton (8-0, 5-0) and No. 1 Jeannette (9-0, 5-0) will meet in the traditional Week 9 showdown Friday at McKee Stadium for first place in the WPIAL Class A Eastern Conference and possibly the top seed in the playoffs.
“I’m sure they were upset; I’d be upset if I were them,” Hall said. “We knew what they had coming back, and we know what type of game it’s going to be, and we’re excited to play them. Tradition never graduates, just like here.”
If Clairton wins or loses, the Bears have enough Gardner Points if they finish second to earn a home game, with a stipulation -- the game can’t be at Neil C. Brown Stadium because the athletic program is on probation from an incident during a 2018 home basketball game against Monessen.
Jeannette will host a first-round game if it wins the conference. The Jayhawks can’t afford to play like they did a year ago at Clairton in Week 9, losing 40-6 after a series of miscues.
Things turned around a few weeks later in the WPIAL semifinals when the Jayhawks defense eliminated errors and kept Clairton’s offense from making big plays in an 18-7 victory.
“It’s a big game week, conference championship week and probably the No. 1 seed in the playoffs week,” Hall said. “In the first game we made some mental mistakes, and they capitalized on them and got the momentum and they kept it and forced us to play from behind, and we couldn’t catch up.
“It was a total team effort in the playoff game. The defense was strong, and we were holding our breath until the final buzzer went off, because they were so impressive.”
Wade said penalties hurt them in the playoffs. He also felt (Jeannette grad) Robert Kennedy was a difference-maker with his interception return and big catches.
“We were behind the sticks a lot,” Wade said. “They were better prepared, and we didn’t use the same game plan as the first game.”
One player who stood out other than Kennedy for Jeannette was quarterback Seth Howard, who rallied the Jayhawks in the second half against Rochester the previous week. Howard’s late touchdown run in the fourth quarter sealed the win against Clairton.
“Their quarterback does a great job, especially when plays break down,” Wade said, “and (Marcus) Barnes is an exceptional athlete who catches the ball well.”
Howard has completed 69 of 125 passes for 1,170 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. He’s also rushed for 451 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
Barnes, who missed a win over Riverview on Saturday, has 25 catches for 484 yards and eight touchdowns. Imani Sanders is the leading rusher with 527 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Clairton’s key to victory will be how well junior quarterback Brendan Parsons performs. He’s completed 46 of 84 passes for 897 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Bears’ top rushers are Taevon Thomspon (408 yards) and Dontae Sanders (401).
“I feel their quarterback is a great leader of their offense,” Hall said. “They have a nice-sized line that comes off the ball, and they have some playmakers. It’s Clairton: it ruled the WPIAL in Class A.”