If North Allegheny coach Art Walker gets his wish, the Tigers will be playing at home in early November with a trip to Heinz Field on the line.
But every coach in Class 6A has similar hopes this season.
Rather than a neutral-site semifinal as usual, the WPIAL is awarding a first-round bye and then home-field advantage to the two top seeds in Class 6A. Finishing high in the standings is always the mission, but those added perks will spice up the regular-season race to the top.
“You could have a game here to go to the championship,” Walker said, looking around at Newman Stadium. “I think that’s got to be your mindset.”
The WPIAL used some creativity to decide the Class 6A playoff format because the largest classification has only nine teams: Butler, Canon-McMillan, Central Catholic, Hempfield, Mt. Lebanon, North Allegheny, Norwin, Pine-Richland and Seneca Valley.
That’s five fewer than last season, so the WPIAL combined them into one large nameless conference.
For the playoffs, an eight-team bracket was considered too big and a four-team bracket too small. So the WPIAL split the difference and chose a six-team, three-round bracket with massive rewards for the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds.
“While they’re lining everything up, you get a week off and a semifinal game at home, which is huge,” Walker said. “I love the home game as a semifinal. I absolutely, positively love that.”
With a first-round bye, those top teams could advance straight to the finals with a home playoff win Nov. 9. The championship is Nov. 17, at Heinz Field.
“We’d like to play every game at home, especially in the playoffs,” Seneca Valley coach Ron Butschle said. “Having a home game is a huge advantage.
“So our goal is to finish No. 1. That’s what everybody’s goal is.”
If this season is like the last, one loss may be the difference between first, second and third place, but also between sixth and seventh. Each team plays every other Class 6A opponent once.
That leaves little room for error.
“One loss to a team you shouldn’t have lost to could come back and sting you at the end,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “You definitely don’t want to be limping into the playoffs in this structure. You’d like to go in there at the top of your game, get that bye, maybe get healthy, win one and get to Heinz.”
Pine-Richland won the WPIAL and PIAA championships last season, claiming another title for what was a dominant Northern Seven Conference. Combined, Pine-Richland, Central Catholic and North Allegheny have won the WPIAL’s largest classification eight years in a row.
“I think the perennial powerhouses are going to go (into the season) as perennial powerhouses,” said Butschle, whose team was WPIAL runner-up in 2016. “And teams like Mt. Lebo and Hempfield and Canon-Mac are going to get a taste of the northern section, which was a pretty competitive league.”
1. Pine-Richland (16-0)
The Rams are defending WPIAL and PIAA Class 6A champions, but this year’s team has a different look now that star quarterback Phil Jurkovec is a freshman at Notre Dame. However, much of the offensive line returns intact including Notre Dame recruit Andrew Kristofic and Indiana recruit Michael Katic.
2. North Allegheny (8-4)
3. Central Catholic (10-3)
4. Mt. Lebanon (6-5)
5. Norwin (5-6)
*Records from 2017
Central Catholic, sr., DE/OLB
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound defensive end combined with David Green to form a formidable tandem a year ago. Green is now a freshman at Pitt, leaving Dallas as the Vikings’ top pass rusher.
Pine-Richland, sr., FB/LB
King was the team’s leading tackler (69 solo, 150 total) when the Rams went 16-0 last season and won the state title. He also had 3.5 sacks. King committed to Navy in April.
Pine-Richland, sr., OL/DL
The Notre Dame commit was a two-way standout for the Rams last season, serving as an anchor on both sides of the line. The 6-6, 260-pound tackle had more than two dozen offers.
Joey Porter Jr.
North Allegheny, sr., WR/DB
Porter intercepted seven passes last season, returned a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown and also scored on a punt return. The Division I recruit listed Pitt, Penn State, LSU, Miami and Nebraska as his top offers.
Norwin, sr., RB/DB
Thrift, who lists Pitt, West Virginia and Syracuse among his 10 FBS offers, made 79 tackles at safety and scored seven touchdowns at running back last season. He carried the ball 81 times for 381 yards.
9.28 Central Catholic at Pine-Richland
Combined, these two teams have won five consecutive WPIAL titles. Pine-Richland defeated Central, 42-7, in last year’s final.
10.5 Upper St. Clair at Mt. Lebanon
Upper St. Clair isn’t a Class 6A team, but the two South Hills rivals were reunited by the WPIAL for a nonconference game.
10.26 Pine-Richland at North Allegheny
When these rivals meet at Newman Stadium in Week 9, a first-round bye could be on the line.