By Jody Kessler
LaSalle’s trip to Hershey was not sweet Saturday. In the Division AAAA state championship game they lost 21-0 to North Allegheny. The Explorers turned the ball over five times, after not turning the ball over the three previous games. North Allegheny held star running back Jamal Abdur-Rahman in check, and was explosive on the ground themselves, gaining 220 yards. Matt Steinbeck was the player of the game, rushing for 120 yard on 20 carries and also intercepting a pass on defense.Quarterback Michael Buchert was also very good for the Tigers, rushing for 51 yards and controlling the game. ΩLaSalle was beat at the line of scrimmage. They could also never get the ball in the hands of their playmakers to get big plays. They just never got it going in their title defense. Still the seniors can be proud of what they accomplished, winning it all last year and getting back to the title game this year. They finished the year 13-2.
LaSalle received the ball to start the game. After converting one first down they did what would be a preview of the whole day. On a swing pass play Tim Wade fumbled the ball and Kevin Cope recovered for the Tigers. The Tigers then did nothing tricky, running the ball nine straight times. It was Steinbeck straight ahead for the first eight of those, chewing up yards. Then on a first and goal Buchert kept it, scooting around to the left and scoring the game’s first touchdown. A bad snap on the next drive for LaSalle pinned them back and they would be forced to punt, not getting anything going offensively. They stopped Allegheny on three plays but the Tigers pulled one of many tricks out on the day. They faked like they were going for it on fourth down but instead Buchert pooched a punt. With no one down field to catch it the ball landed on the Explorer 7 yard line. This would be the beginning of what was a winning field position game for the Tigers. LaSalle did then have their best drive of the day, nearly going the distance, but a penalty backed them out of field goal range and they had to go for it on fourth down. Quarterback Matt Magarity threw the first of his three interceptions, to Seth Marx. After the teams traded three and outs Allegheny got another score before halftime. With less than three minutes on the clock they went to Buchert, who raced up field on two successive big runs. Steinbeck did the rest, on a 28 yard touchdown run. They had a 14-0 halftime lead.
The Explorers have been a second half team this year, so a comeback was a possibility. However they did not start off on the right foot. They did stop the Tigers on D, but then Magarity threw another interception. It was Steinbeck, and he returned it all the way to the 20 yard line.After a penalty backed the Tigers up they pulled another trick play. On a reverse play they executed a flee flicker, and wide receiver Brendan Coniker threw to a wide open Dan Slivka to the one yard line.Buchert punched it in from there and it was 21-0. LaSalle never threatened again and Alleghen y had its first state championship since 1990.
Coach Art Walker, who also won it all with Central Catholic in 2004, talked about the keys to the game. “We talked about field position. No big plays, make them earn it. Not let 22 (Abdur-Rahman) or 9 (Kevin Forster) return the football, it was huge for us today.” About slowing Abdur-Rahman down, the likely player of the year in the state Walker said, “Get him off the ball and make him change direction before he got past the first wave, (take him) out of his comfort zone. I think we were faster than they thought. Teams underestimated our speed. Establish the run, play field position, don’t turn the ball over, no big plays for them. These kids are unbelievable. They’re focused, mature, goal-oriented and committed. It feels great. I want to play next week.”
Steinbeck said, “It’s unbelievable, we wanted it forever. All of us deserve it, we worked so hard for it. It’s amazing. Plan was to get them to turn it over. That’s what happened, we executed well. I dreamed this ever since freshmen year. So happy it’s this year.”
Abdur-Rahman said, “Definitely a successful career for my team. I’m not too happy with the outcome I don’t know when I’ll accept but it has been a successful three years. I would have rather won this.” When asked what the seniors legacy will be the Villanova bound senior said, “ I think we represented them well. They play great. We definitely put it all out on this field, it was a hard effort by everybody, it was a shame we had to lose. I commend them, they played hard all year, gave great effort all year, we put in a lot of hours on this team, you can’t ask for more than that. It just wasn’t meant for us this year.
Coach Drew Gordon said, “We didn’t have our best game. They played very well and they deserved to win. Turnovers, getting plays blown up at the line of scrimmage. There wasn’t anything that they didn’t take advantage of. They caused a lot of our problems. Can’t have guys six yards in your backfield. Five turnovers.” About his team and the seniors legacy he said, “They didn’t quit and that’s what I asked for. You walk off with your head high, we tried our best, it just didn’t work out. Three Catholic League championships and a state championship, they should be proud. Look back on the record. They should be really proud of themselves, they accomplished a lot. Work hard, committed kids. They did everything in the off-season, weights. Couple kids rehabbed from serious injuries, Jamal, Connor (Daly).”
Daly was a captain along with Ryan Geiger and Joe Naji. Forster, a standout graduates as well, as does Wade and 17 others. Magarity will be back to lead the Explorers next year.