HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: WPIAL CLASS AAA PLAYOFFS: Indiana won't back down from challenge that is West Allegheny
Their primary school color is red, their nicknames are Indians, and their head coaches have ties to the IUP football program. But the similarities between Indiana and West Allegheny pretty much end there, as far as high school football is concerned.
But when the teams meet Friday in a WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinal game at North Hills High School, nothing else will matter other than which team plays better.
“This is a group of kids who are a good football team,” Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas said of West Allegheny. “They play technique football pretty well. But we feel like we’re doing some of those same things well right now, too. If we play with the physicality that we have the past four weeks, then this is going to be a really good football game.”
That said, Indiana and West Allegheny have taken two vastly different roads to this game.
Indiana (5-5) is making just its seventh trip to the WPIAL playoffs since joining the league in 1988 and is the ninth seed in the 16-team bracket. Indiana has never gotten past the second round and has an all-time playoff mark of just 3-6.
West Allegheny (10-0) is in a familiar spot — the No. 1 seed. Since coach Bob Palko took over in 1995, West Allegheny has a record of 165-60, including a 32-9 mark in the playoffs. West Allegheny has won six WPIAL titles and one state championship and is in the playoffs for the 17th time in Palko’s 19-year tenure.
While Indiana squeaked into the playoffs with a losing record, West Allegheny chugged along with only two of its 10 victories being decided by fewer than 20 points.
“Not only have they had a super year,” Zilinskas said, “but they have a super program. The (2001) state championship speaks for itself. But what we’ve told the kids is that the state championship was by another team. We’re not playing that team. We’re playing this one.”
Indiana will certainly have its hands full with this one, and that’s understood. But Zilinskas feels confident that his team will show up and give West Allegheny more than it probably bargains for.
“They’re just tough, well-coached, disciplined kids,” Zilinskas said. “But they are vulnerable.”
Last week, Indiana was supposedly in over its head against Ringgold in the first round, but the host Rams proved to be no real test, and Indiana came home with a 28-14 win that probably wasn’t that close of a game.
That’s why Zilinskas has such a good feeling about this matchup.
“We’re playing our best football right now,” said Zilinskas, whose team has won three of its past four games. “The thing that was great to see is that the kids had a lot of fun last week. Things have clicked, and the kids are excited to play this game.”
So is Zilinskas. He’s waited for years to look across the field and see Palko, his old college coach, on the other sideline. Zilinskas was a freshman at IUP in 1983 when Palko was a graduate assistant coach who was in charge of tight ends.
Zilinskas was initially recruited as a defensive end, but he was moved to tight end when preseason camp arrived, and he spent the year being mentored by Palko, a former college quarterback who was getting his feet wet in the coaching business. The pair of young men were close that one season (Palko left afterward for another job), and they have stayed in touch since.
“I’ve seen him through the years at clinics and coaches meetings and places like that, and he’s a really good guy,” Zilinskas said. “He’s had a lot of success. And there were times in the playoffs where we talked about if it was possible for us to play each other, but it didn’t happen until now. I always thought it would be fun.”
Zilinskas will find out Friday night how much fun it will be. He knows it will be a tough mountain to climb, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We like our game plan; we like what we’re going to do,” he said. “It’s really just a matter of who executes better. But I know this: We’ll be ready. We’re going to be right there slugging it out with them.”