Subplots abound as La Salle and West Catholic go for football gold Saturday at HersheyPark Stadium.
Against District 7's North Allegheny, in a 5 p.m. start, the Explorers, looking to repeat as PIAA state Class AAAA champions, must avoid an emotional letdown after going 15 rounds a week ago with fellow Southeastern Pennsylvania powerhouse North Penn.
For West Catholic, taking on South Fayette - also of District 7 - at noon for top Class AA honors, a victory would help ease some of the pain associated with losing to District 10's Wilmington, 35-34, in double overtime in the 2008 final.
Against the Greyhounds, the favored Burrs went for the win in the second OT. But quarterback Curtis Drake, now at Penn State, was tripped up on a left-side conversion run and hit the turf 1 yard shy of the end zone. West, which had gone in averaging nearly 50 points a game, had to settle for the second-place trophy and a 14-2 season.
Then-sophomores Brandon Hollomon, Jim Lynch, Quran Kent, and Anthony McDonnaugh experienced that heartbreaking defeat and plan to make the plays to ensure a celebratory outcome this time.
Brian Fluck, West's 12th-year coach, returned to the locker room used by the Burrs that day while serving as an assistant coach for the Pennsylvania squad in the prestigious Big 33 Classic.
"It brought up the bad memories," he said.
La Salle's Connor Daly, a senior inside linebacker who was involved in six tackles in an unforgettable, 38-35 semifinal triumph over North Penn, could only watch last year when the Explorers turned back District 6's State College, 24-7, in the snow to become District 12's first state football champion.
Daly's left knee was torn up in a Week 3, nonleague clash with West. The tricaptain, wearing a brace, savors each minute on the field and plays in honor of his late father, Tim. His mother and biggest supporter, Nancy, is always quick to greet her son after games.
And Daly's teammate, star rusher Jamal Abdur-Rahman, missed the second half of the historic win over State College. He injured his right knee on fullback Tim Wade's 8-yard touchdown run, which put the Explorers in front, 17-0, just before the break.
If North Allegheny can keep pace with Drew Gordon's squad, Abdur-Rahman, a Villanova recruit who also plays cornerback and returns kicks, will want to be a difference-maker come crunch time.
West's march to Hershey has been aided by several players who were forced to find a home after North Catholic closed its doors in June.
Quarterback Anthony Reid, strong safety David Sherman, offensive lineman Mike Makor, and reserve running back David Williams are the former Falcons in the mix. Reid has thrown for 1,300 yards and 13 scores.
In taking on La Salle, the Tigers are without the services of senior halfback Alex Papson, who rushed for 2,482 yards and 32 TDs before suffering a dislocated collarbone in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) final against Woodland Hills.
That puts more pressure on halfback Matt Steinbeck, quarterback Mike Buchert, and others to make big plays. North Allegheny, which runs the ball about 70 percent of the time, doesn't have the speed to stretch the field on the Explorers.
La Salle, some believe, already beat the state's second-best team when it knocked off North Penn. Because of that, it must guard against a drop-off in intensity and overconfidence. It also would help to avoid another slow start, which has happened five times this year, most recently against Easton.
A pair of area Catholic League schools are on the doorstep of statewide glory. One is seeking redemption, the other is trying to maintain king-of-the-hill status.
Rick O'Brien: PIAA State Football Finals
Both games at HersheyPark Stadium, Hershey, Pa.
Class AA: West Catholic vs. South Fayette
Time: Noon Saturday.
TV: Live on PCN.
Class AAAA: La Salle vs. North Allegheny
Time: 5 p.m. Saturday.
TV: Live on PCN.