Palko closes out home career as West Allegheny smothers Shaler
Bob Palko carried the football in his right arm as he exited the field at Joe P. DiMichela Stadium for the final time.
The West Allegheny faithful that stuck it out to the completion of the No. 5 Indians’ 37-0 win over No. 12 Shaler in the opening round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs, cheered Palko from the fence around the field.
Palko, who will retire at the end of the season and is not one for sentimentalism, glanced up at the scoreboard’s video display, where he saw his own picture with the words “Thank You Coach Palko” overlaid.
“Right there,” Palko said. “That’s it, right there.”
Whether the WPIAL’s leader in championship victories -- with eight -- was referring to the message, the cheering fans, the final score, or a combination of the three, is open to interpretation.
But the win was vintage West Allegheny.
The Indians (8-2) took the life out of Shaler early, rattling off a 16-play drive that ended in a 30-yard field goal by Jon McArdle.
“That was important, and we knew we needed to do that,” Palko said. “We did some good things. We thought we had a good game plan, but it was awesome to watch them execute.”
After another 11-play series that finished with a punt, West Allegheny went up 10-0 on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Kam Kruze.
The junior quarterback then orchestrated a 10-play drive to close out the half, completing a 1-yard touchdown pass to Drevon Baldwin with 5 seconds remaining. Kruze finished with 72 passing yards and ran for 47 more.
“I thought he did some really good things, but missed a couple things,” Palko said. “We’re always looking for that perfection, but he made the plays when he needed to.”
At halftime, West Allegheny had run 44 plays. Shaler had run just 13.
“I think, defensively, we put up a good resistance against their offense,” Shaler coach Jim Ryan said. “We just couldn’t get our offense going. We were missing blocks, we weren’t picking up the blitzes, a couple routes weren’t accurate. It got hard.”
The second half brought a freezing rain and turnovers. Shaler fumbled three times, including on a kick return. Titans quarterback Darin Mizgorski, who passed for 95 yards, was intercepted twice, as well.
“Once the turnover game gets out of control, that’s when things go south,” Ryan said.
Dante Flati, who ran for 46 yards, scored on a 2-yard plunge on West Allegheny’s opening drive of the third quarter, pushing the Indians’ lead to 24-0. Palko then began to pull his starters.
Gavin Miller and Tristan Stokes each had short touchdown runs in the fourth quarter to put the game into a running clock.
Shaler’s players were visibly emotional after the loss, as they and the staff formed a line and had each member of the team embrace on the field postgame. In Week Zero, the Titans snapped a 24-game losing streak.
Having just won two games in the previous six years, Shaler finished the year at 4-7.
“It’s unbelievable,” Ryan said. “This senior class led the charge. Any time they said something, they meant it and they did it. My hat goes off to this team and this senior class. In terms of what they’ve accomplished this year, it’s just a wonderful group of men.”
West Allegheny will meet No. 13 seed and Allegheny Eight Conference rival Woodland Hills, which pulled an upset over No. 4 Mars. In Week 5, the Indians topped the Wolverines, 14-13.
“We know all about Woodland Hills,” Palko said. “They’re extremely athletic. It doesn’t surprise me that they beat Mars. It’ll be extremely interesting, to say the least.”