EXPLAINING OUR PICKS: It’s championship week in Pennsylvania.
Twelve teams will descend on Cumberland Valley High School for three days beginning Thursday afternoon for the 2023 PIAA football championships. One Mid-Penn team is left standing, undefeated and defending Class 1A champion Steel-High. The Rollers, who have dominated almost everyone who crossed their path this season, take on WPIAL champion Fort Cherry on Thursday at 1 p.m.
And the 4th Down Magazine team is here to tell you who will win all six title games. For one last time in 2023, this year’s group of experts includes veteran reporters Andy Shay and Andy Sandrik, as well as 4th Down owner and manager Adam Kulikowski.
Here’s who we think will win each game and why, with the kind of analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Our final episode of 4th & Goal with Andy Shay and Jake Adams features an interview with Steel-High’s Ronald Burnette Jr. plus we break down the keys to victory for Steel-High and other PIAA state final match-ups. We’ll also looking back at what went wrong for Bishop McDevitt and Harrisburg in the PIAA semifinals.
Picker: Last Week — Overall — Perfect Picks
Andy Sandrik: 1-2 — 232-68 — 0
Adam Kulikowski: 1-2 — 230-70 — 2
Andy Shay: 2-1 — 219-81 — 1
* Records in parentheses after school name; District and seed in parentheses before school name.
THURSDAY, DEC. 7
PIAA CLASS 1A CHAMPIONSHIP
3-1 Steel-High vs. 7-1 Fort Cherry, at Cumberland Valley HS, 1 p.m.
Andy Shay: Steel-High 41, Fort Cherry 30: The quarterbacks in this matchup are both elite and have plenty of weapons around them to choose from. This game could be combustible for stretches, and each defense is going to see an offense the likes of which they haven’t experienced yet. Entertainment factor here is off the charts.
Andy Sandrik: Steel-High 45, Fort Cherry 27: The Rollers will allow some points, sure, but their offense is just so dialed in I don’t think there’s another Class 1A defense that can stop them from nailing down the program’s third state title in the last four years. I have a bittersweet feeling knowing that this is the last time I’ll get to watch this masterful team in motion.
Adam Kulikowski: Steel-High 55, Fort Cherry 38: Where does a team that could claim its third state championship in four seasons rank among the best in Steel-High history? Top five in my book if the Rollers complete the mission Thursday afternoon.
PIAA CLASS 4A CHAMPIONSHIP
2-1 Dallas vs. 7-1 Aliquippa, at Cumberland Valley HS, 7 p.m.
Andy Shay: Aliquippa 42, Dallas 14: That was a massive upset Dallas pulled off a week ago. Its defense and special teams were spectacular. And it will need the same kind of help this week as the Quips bring a physical element to the table that is hard to prepare for. The 1-2 punch at RB for Aliquippa is simply lethal.
Andy Sandrik: Aliquippa 39, Dallas 21: There’s a big part of me that believes Dallas cracked the code when it knocked off Bishop McDevitt and has all the tools to duplicate the feat against Aliquippa. There’s an even bigger part of me that worries the Mountaineers played well beyond their capabilities just to get here and are one of the teams in these PIAA finals most vulnerable to a blowout loss.
Adam Kulikowski: Aliquippa 48, Dallas 20: Dallas did all the small things right to capitalize on Bishop McDevitt’s miscues and knock off the defending state champions. Counting on the Quips to open the door again would be foolish.
FRIDAY, DEC. 8
PIAA CLASS 2A CHAMPIONSHIP
4-1 Southern Columbia vs. 8-1 Westinghouse, at Cumberland Valley HS, 1 p.m.
Andy Shay: Southern Columbia 34, Westinghouse 20: I can see a path to victory for the upset-minded Bulldogs from Pittsburgh, however, the Tigers demand a certain level of excellence over 48 minutes to knock them off that is hard to reach. I keep hearing this isn’t the same Southern team, but good gracious the results and record look very, very familiar.
Andy Sandrik: Southern Columbia 28, Westinghouse 14: I was impressed with how thoroughly Southern Columbia beat up on what I thought was a very physical Dunmore team. Westinghouse is unbeaten, but the Bulldogs haven’t always been dominant. My gut is telling me SoCo will be one or two steps ahead from beginning to end.
Adam Kulikowski: Westinghouse 28, Southern Columbia 27: Betting against the Tigers is hardly ever where the smart money goes, but I’m chasing a two-game deficit in our pick standings and this is one matchup the venerable Bulldogs can help a brotha out!
PIAA CLASS 5A CHAMPIONSHIP
12-1 Imhotep Charter vs. 7-1 Peters Township, at Cumberland Valley HS, 7 p.m.
Andy Shay: Peters Township 27, Imhotep Charter 23: In so many ways this is about as level of a playing field of any matchup in the state championships. The quality of what the District 7 champions faced on a weekly basis this season shows a lot of adaptability and mettle. That matters in my book and should serve them well in this tight affair.
Andy Sandrik: Imhotep Charter 28, Peters Township 14: Imhotep, 1-6 in state title games, has gained the reputation of being the Buffalo Bills of Pa. high school football. But I think they turn it around this week. The key matchup for me is Peters Township sophomore QB Nolan DiLucia vs. a Panthers secondary that has picked off 22 passes this season.
Adam Kulikowski: Peters Township 34, Imhotep Charter 27: Let me help translate Mr. Sandrik’s prediction for those of you who may not have been born in the early 90s: the Buffalo Bills played in four straight Super Bowls in the early 90s and came away with nothing but parting gifts. I actually find that a fitting comparison for IC, which is 1-6 in the big game in its history while Peters Township makes its first appearance in the state final.
SATURDAY, DEC. 9
PIAA CLASS 3A CHAMPIONSHIP
11-1 Northwestern Lehigh vs. 7-1 Belle Vernon, at Cumberland Valley HS, 1 p.m.
Andy Shay: Belle Vernon 26, Northwestern Lehigh 24: This is pretty simple. No way I’m picking against the defending PIAA champions. The Leopards’ balance on offense is hard to slow down with any consistency, and it taxes a defense.
Andy Sandrik: Belle Vernon 28, Northwestern Lehigh 21: My favorite part about the PIAA title games is seeing the stars. And Belle Vernon RB Quinton Martin, a Penn State recruit, is a star who leads his team in both rushing and receiving.
Adam Kulikowski: Northwestern Lehigh 31, Belle Vernon 29: Northwestern Lehigh is in the big dance for the first time in school history after taking down Wyomissing last week. Yes, Belle Vernon has a Division I-pedigree back in Quinton Martin, but throw some respect on Lehigh’s Dalton Clymer, who piled up 1,807 stripes and 31 scores on the ground. Expect a tight battle where one score should decide it.
PIAA CLASS 6A CHAMPIONSHIP
12-1 St. Joseph’s Prep vs. 7-1 North Allegheny, at Cumberland Valley HS, 7 p.m.
Andy Shay: St. Joseph’s Prep 35, North Allegheny 17: Since the PIAA went to six classifications for football in 2016, St. Joseph’s Prep has played in the championship game all seven previous years. Make it 8-for-8 now. SJP has won five of the seven state championship games. Look, I love what NA brings to the table, but no way I’m picking against the horse for the course.
Andy Sandrik: St. Joseph’s Prep 38, North Allegheny 14: Even if you ignore SJP’s history of dominance in the 6A classification and just focus on this season, the Hawks still deserve to be overwhelming favorites based on how badly they’ve massacred their PIAA competition.
Adam Kulikowski: St. Joseph’s Prep 45, North Allegheny 20: This is the 10th trip to the state finals in the last 11 seasons for St. Joseph’s Prep. In the biggest games, experience matters and Prep has it. Oh, and it has a defense that has completely snuffed out even the highest octane offense this season.