Undermanned Monessen nearly pulls off upset for ages
Decidedly outnumbered in roster numbers, fans and expectations, Monessen put a rather unannounced scare into top-seeded Jeannette on Friday night in the WPIAL Class A football quarterfinals at Hempfield.
Playing with just 17 dressed players, 26 on the roster in all -- exactly half of Jeannette’s 52 -- the eighth-seeded Greyhounds stayed close with the defending WPIAL and PIAA champion Jayhawks until the final whistle before falling 18-14.
They were driving inside the final two minutes when penalties backed them up substantially. They forced Jeannette to turn it over on downs twice, held the Jayhawks to a field goal on a second-half drive and the biggest play they allowed was a 41-yard touchdown from Seth Howard to Jackson Pruitt.
Freshman quarterback Devin Whitlock looked like the best player on the field -- at least on this night -- and the decided underdogs made a perennial power look average.
While Greyhounds coach and alum Mikey Blainefield isn’t one for moral victories, he’ll take this one as such -- and run with it.
If ever a team could high-step out of the park after a loss, it’s Monessen, which ended the season 7-3.
“The younger kids can see that we can play with a lot of teams,” said Blainefield, who is in his second season. “The talent is there. We just don’t have the depth. I don’t think anybody will look at Monessen like they have (in recent years). We didn’t win, but this was a big game for our program.”
Jeannette (11-0) knew Monessen was better than the team it blanked 49-0 in the first round last year. But the Jayhawks never saw this coming: a sluggish playoff opener where the offense sputtered, big plays were bottled and nothing came easy.
The game was moved to Hempfield because McKee Stadium was unplayable due to muddy field conditions. Monessen made itself at home at Spartan Stadium.
“They outplayed us,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. “We have to come ready to play. Monessen was ready.”
Monessen was 2-7 last year but backed into a 16-team playoff field. That field was cut in half this year, and the Greyhounds not only qualified on merit but earned a share of the Tri-County South title with West Greene and California. A coin flip was used to break the tie to determine playoff positioning.
Blainefield was more concerned with the coin flip Friday night.
“We wanted to get the ball first, establish the run, eat clock up and try to wear them down,” said the former Georgetown defensive back. “We knew playing in the turf would be an advantage for us. It’s just tough when you have 17 guys on one side and 52 on the other. And penalties got to us.”
Jeannette and Monessen are 1-2 in playoff appearances in Westmoreland, with 41 and 34, respectively.
Jeannette has 747 wins, the most in WPIAL history, but Monessen isn’t all that far behind, with 664. The Greyhounds, though, have not won a playoff game since 2013 and a WPIAL title since 1961.
Blainefield is trying to put self-esteem back in a once-proud program. The team went 1-9 in 2016 for its worst season in school history but has bounced back gradually.
“It’s a process, but I think we’re making improvements,” Blainefield said. “Our defense played well, which I am proud of, but again, it’s the depth. We have to get our numbers up to be able to take the next step.”
Whitlock does not have an imposing look to him at 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds, and he certainly doesn’t fit the quarterback stereotype. But the emerging standout accounted for 199 yards and two touchdowns in the near-upset. He has more than 2,000 all-purpose yards this season.
“That’s a freshman going against the state champions in his first playoff game,” Blainefield said. “He has helped put us in a position all season to compete.”
Hall and his staff were disappointed by another rash of penalties and a sluggish start. But Hall was impressed by Whitlock.
“He was fast as (heck),” Hall said. “He’s a true freshman. He was playing midget football last year.”
Monessen only lost 22-14 to No. 5 seed Rochester, the team Jeannette will play in the semifinals.