By John Knebels
Sports Columnist

Back on Sept. 17, La Salle and West Catholic competed in a nonleague football game with nothing on the line. Both teams were just trying to stay healthy and improve their play as the Catholic League spanision schedule beckoned a few weeks later.

After the Explorers edged the Burrs 14-7, players from both squads wished each other well during the hand-shaking ceremony that followed. Little did they know that three months later each team would be preparing to play in the state championship, albeit against different opponents.

“We’ve come a long way,” said West Catholic senior Brandon Hollomon. “We have a chance to do something special.”

Indeed. {{more}}

In a PIAA Class AA semifinal Dec. 11 at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, West Catholic defeated stubborn and previously undefeated Lewisburg 21-7. The Burrs will return to that site at noon Dec. 18 to take on South Fayette in the state championship.

Five hours later on the same field, La Salle will compete for the PIAA Class AAAA state title against North Allegheny. The Explorers earned a right to defend last year’s crown by stunning North Penn 38-35, their 12th victory in a row.

The Explorers (13-1) erased five different deficits before emerging victorious. Trailing 35-31 with 4:43 left in regulation, La Salle engineered an efficient drive that reached the end zone when junior quarterback Matt Magarity found sophomore Sean Coleman (five catches for 114 yards; an interception on defense) for a 25-yard touchdown pass with only 2:21 remaining.

Magarity finished with 10 completions for 180 yards and two touchdowns; senior Jamal Abdur-Rahman contributed 142 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries.

North Penn’s desperate attempt to force a tie was thwarted when senior Joe Naji tipped a pass that landed in the hands of senior teammate Ryan Geiger.

“That’s as good as it gets,” said La Salle coach Drew Gordon. “This was like two good boxers in the ring going punch for punch.”

As it has done throughout the past two seasons, the Explorers were the only team left standing at the bell.

West Catholic is hoping to secure its first state title. The Burrs (12-2) won their 11th straight behind the running of Hollomon (18 carries for 208 yards and his 17th touchdown of the season) and sophomore David Williams (11 for 85, 15th touchdown) and a tenacious defense highlighted by an interception by Hollomon and another theft by senior Dave Sherman, his fourth of the season.

The Catholic League almost had a third team qualify for the finals. Unfortunately for Archbishop Wood, the Vikings (13-1) played a spirited first half against also-undefeated Allentown Central Catholic, but a nightmarish second half turned a 21-21 tie into a 49-27, PIAA class AAA defeat. Junior Brandon Peoples accounted for 157 yards and a touchdown; junior quarterback Joey Monaghan tossed two TD’s – one each to juniors Kyle Adkins (six catches for 87 yards) and Colin Thompson.

John Knebels can be reached at