Imani Christian seeks ‘elite’ status against Class A rival Clairton
James Franklin’s post-game message hit home with Imani Christian’s Ronnell Heard, who echoed the Penn State coach’s thoughts about turning a “great” program into an “elite” one.
“I feel like we’re right in that boat with Penn State,” said Heard, Imani’s coach, whose Saints were WPIAL runners-up last season. “We’re a great program, we’re not elite yet. When we put the little things together, we’ll be able to be on that elite level with the Clairtons and the Jeannettes.”
Combined, Clairton and Jeannette own 22 WPIAL titles, but upstart Imani has quickly earned their attention.
Ranked second in Class A, Imani Christian (5-1, 3-1) sees a chance to inch toward elite status Friday night when it visits No. 3 Clairton (5-0, 3-0) for a key Eastern Conference matchup at Neil C. Brown Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
Imani already lost to Jeanette, 28-12, in Week 2.
Only the top two teams in each Class A conference earn automatic WPIAL playoff berths, so a second loss could leave Imani home come November.
“We’ve got to win,” Heard said. “This is our season right here.”
This was only Imani’s third year back after a two-year hiatus. The program faced a player shortage in 2013 and folded, but one of the smallest schools in the WPIAL has quickly become one of the biggest threats in Class A.
Imani defeated Clairton, 18-6, last season.
“No one gets into this game (of football) to just have a team,” said Heard, whose Saints are 21-10 since the 2016 reboot. “We came together and wanted to win. We have a group of guys who understand what it takes to win. We’ve had that mentality ever since.”
However, few teams have won more in recent decades than Friday’s opponent, Clairton. The Bears enter Week 6 undefeated, but with considerably less buzz than most of their undefeated teams of seasons past.
Clairton coach Wayne Wade said the low profile is understandable.
“I think it’s more or less that we don’t have Lamont Wade, five-star, Tyler Boyd, five-star,” he said. “We don’t have that type of kid on the team, but we have a couple of Division 1-type of kids.”
Among them, wide receiver Dom Solomon leads the team with four touchdowns and fullback/slot receiver Leonard Robinson has three.
“Those kids to me are D1 kids,” Wade said.
The Bears lost sophomore running back Isaiah Berry to a knee injury in a scrimmage, so senior Taevon Thompson and sophomore Dontae Sanders have handled the carries instead. Thompson has rushed for 210 yards, and Sanders has added 121.
Clairton’s quiet start is also due in part to its schedule. The Bears scrimmaged in Week Zero rather than play a real game, and then sat home Week 1 when Mapletown forfeited the opener.
Since then, they’ve defeated Greensburg Central Catholic, 40-0, Riverview, 54-0, and Leechburg, 36-0, in consecutive blowouts.
So, this could be Clairton’s first true test.
“For us it’s business as usual,” Wade said. “The kids feel it’s a big game because we lost to them last year, but we’re just trying to go into the game and execute on both sides of the ball. If we can do that, we can be victorious.”
Defensively, Clairton must defend the pass.
Imani quarterback Israel Reed ranks fourth among WPIAL passers with 1,524 yards. He’s completed 73 of 117 attempts with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Reed’s top target is senior receiver R.J. Hart, a Ball State commit. Hart leads the WPIAL with 801 receiving yards and ranks second with 35 receptions. Dashaun Wright has 23 catches for 511 yards.
Behind Reed, Hart and Wright, Imani Christian’s offense averages 42 points.
Clairton has averaged 39.
“Their offense is just as high-powered as ours,” Heard said of Clairton, “meaning they can score at any moment.”
Only the top two teams earn automatic berths into the eight-team bracket, but two of the three third-place teams will receive wild-card spots. Imani could make the playoffs with a loss, but Heard doesn’t want to take that chance.
“It’s almost like a must-win for us,” Heard said. “We don’t want to leave it up to a wild card.”