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Rick O'Brien: Explorers dug a hole and couldn't climb out

HERSHEY, Pa. - La Salle, in its drive back to the PIAA Class AAAA state championship game, had overcome several slow playoff starts.

HERSHEY, Pa. - La Salle, in its drive back to the PIAA Class AAAA state championship game, had overcome several slow playoff starts.

This time, against a rugged and turnover-free North Allegheny squad, there would be no spirited comeback. The Tigers, capitalizing on two of La Salle's five cough-ups and silencing a usually productive offense, posted a 21-0 victory and emerged with their first crown since 1990.

Three interceptions. Two fumbles. Only 77 rushing yards on 26 attempts. The Explorers, hurt throughout the game by poor field position, never found an offensive rhythm.

And North Allegheny, with a rock-sold effort up front on both sides of the ball and deceptive quickness, capitalized on the flat performance.

"The kids had an unbelievable focus, an amazing attention to detail, and handled things like a college team in the week leading up to the game," Tigers coach Art Walker said.

Walker earned his second Class AAAA state title. He made two appearances in the final with District 7 rival Pittsburgh Central Catholic, losing to North Penn in 2003 and then beating Neshaminy in 2004.

North Allegheny's Matt Steinbeck, filling the void left when 2,400-yard rusher Alex Papson went down with a dislocated collarbone in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) final, barreled his way to 120 yards, several times dragging La Salle defenders with him.

Walker's pregame keys to victory? "Establish the run, no big plays for them, don't turn the ball over, and we've got a shot," he said.

The Tigers accomplished all three in dethroning the Explorers. In the first half, La Salle's biggest gain was a 17-yard burst by fullback Tim Wade. In the second quarter, the District 12 champs reached the 16 on a 15-play drive, but came away empty when Matt Magarity's pass was picked off by linebacker Seth Marx at the 3.

Jamal Abdur-Rahman, La Salle's catalyst at tailback all season, was held to 50 yards on 17 carries. In the first half, he was stopped twice behind the line of scrimmage.

Said Walker: "We beat them off the ball and made [Abdur-Rahman] change directions before he could get to the first wave of defenders."

It was the first time Drew Gordon's Explorers were kept off the scoreboard since 2007, when they bowed to Father Judge, 14-0, in the regular season.

Just four plays into the game, Wade fumbled away a short reception. The District 7 titlists, taking over at the La Salle 40, scored nine plays later. It marked the beginning of the end.

On mostly draw plays, Tigers quarterback Mike Buchert gained 51 yards on 13 carries. "He's an unbelievable game manager," Walker said. "All of the things he does for us, from a command standpoint, I can't ask for any more from him."

North Allegheny's sturdy offensive line kept La Salle's starting front four - tackles Ryan Geiger and Kieran Trainer, and ends Joe Naji and Cameron Cappo - from getting into the backfield and stopping Buchert and Steinbeck before they could get started.

In the first half, La Salle was held to 90 yards on 27 plays from scrimmage. Things didn't get any better after Gordon's attempt at a halftime intervention. Three more turnovers made sure of that.

Abdur-Rahman, whose next stop is Villanova, finished his standout varsity career just shy of 4,000 rushing yards, ending with 3,962. He scored 57 TDs.

"I'm not too happy with the outcome," Abdur-Rahman said afterward, "but I'll accept it. I'm definitely happy with my years here."