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"Mr. High School Sports" - With Respect Earned, Black Hills Rivals Fight For More


Head coach Tom Nola said the key to victory in Week 4 was to establish an early presence. But Monessen head coach Andy Pacak, like the rest of the WPIAL, has been acutely aware of Clairton and its achievements for some time.

"A lot of times people don't realize how many kids we're actually dealing with on the Single-A level. To get consistent line play on offense and defense, and to be able to go on a run like just speaks volumes about him as a coach, his staff, and the kids they've had at their school," Pacak said of his counterpart. "There aren't enough accolades."

The Greyhounds (3-0, 3-0) have already earned a few of those, and they have an opportunity to earn them on a much more permanent basis when they host the Bears (3-0, 3-0) for a monumental Black Hills Conference game Thursday evening.

Kickoff is set for 7:00 P.M. and can be seen live, right after Pirates Postgame, on ROOT Sports.

With a roster numbering just over 30 players, Clairton, the three-time PIAA Class A champion and four-time district champ, enters Memorial Stadium with a 50-game winning streak. It is the longest active high school football winning streak in America, not to mention the longest in WPIAL history, and the Bears need ten more consecutive victories to break the state record held by Central Bucks West (1997-2000).

In addition to its small student body, Clairton also had to overcome eligibility issues the first week of the 2012 season, which led to a 22-20 scare at Chartiers-Houston that wasn't settled until senior athlete Tyler Boyd recovered an onside kick.

Not that Nola's squad is loathe to wear the proverbial bulls-eye. Biennial realignment in the WPIAL has handed his team perhaps its toughest conference schedule since their epic run began, so the Bears knew they would be tested, and Thursday will be their biggest test to date.

"What our seniors have done during this streak has been absolutely amazing," Nola said. "They don't want to be the ones to give this up, and they're playing and practicing in that fashion.

"They're very aware of it because it's always brought up by somebody. But I honestly think it feels like just another game to them."

The leadership of Boyd, a D-1 prospect who had elicited offers throughout the nation, has been a steadying influence once again. He has run for 368 yards, averaging over nine per carry, and ranks among the WPIAL top five in total scoring with eight TD's and 52 points. His ability to find a second gear and turn simple plays into big ones is what has made him the most lethal weapon in Nola's arsenal.

"It's like there's a long wick that you light somewhere, and you don't know when it's going to go off, but--pow--there it goes," Pacak said.

Boyd has helped the Bears return to more familiar form after that first game, as Clairton has outscored its last two opponents 104-13. Those highly-touted offensive and defensive lines, as Boyd predicted they would be before the Week 1 roster shakeup, have been a major key.

Their objective will be to contain Monessen quarterback and West Virginia commit Chavas Rawlins. The versatile senior ranks second in Class A with seven TD's and 44 total points, and he has accumulated 631 yards of offense.

Rawlins has thrown for four touchdowns, though what impresses Pacak even more than his finesse is his gusto.

"He reminds me a lot of Hines Ward. There's no talking, no beating his chest. He just gets up, and does what he has to do. When you have a superior athlete who works that way, it makes everybody better," he said. "He provides the leadership you'd expect a grown man to provide."

"He makes everything go. He's very elusive in the open field," Nola added.

Junior running back/linebacker Justice Rawlins, the younger brother, is rediscovering himself after losing virtually his entire sophomore season to a knee injury. He made some big plays defensively in a hard-fought 35-28 win over Brentwood in Week 2, and despite his lengthy absence, he's gotten offers from Pitt and Rutgers, with more likely on the way.

"I believe he's finally starting to get back to 100 percent on both sides of the ball. You'll start to hear more about him quickly," Pacak said.

The Greyhounds look like the only team in the conference that could remotely mirror Clairton's team speed. Senior quarterback Armani Ford seems to be getting more comfortable in his role and could provide similar balance to its offense.

"If you hurt yourself, they'll jump on you and kill you," Pacak said. "We have to take care of the ball, not make errors that are unforced, and try to limit the big play."

"We feed off mistakes made by other teams," Nola agreed. "We haven't done it as well as we have in the past. We're getting there, but we're not quite there yet. It's going to be about turnovers, and what our team does with those turnovers."

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)

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