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Big-33 Classic helps make up for past Hershey shortcomings

Written by: on Monday, June 15th, 2009. Follow Josh Funk on Twitter.


Trying to find an angle for a Big-33 Classic story isn’t hard.  The game has been going on now for more than five decades.  Story lines abound in what has come to be known as one of the nation’s best high school football all-star games.


So, instead of focusing on the Super Bowl ties, or the big names, or the pomp and circumstance, and instead of trying to fight all of the red tape to get player comments pre-Big-33 game, scheduled for this Saturday night at 7 p.m., here’s a different look at PA’s biggest all-star game.


Atonement.  Second chances.  Athletes only long for such opportunities when their final game of their high school careers doesn’t go their way.  They look, they long, for something to hang their hats on as a wrap to their high school football careers before they begin playing on Saturdays.


The vast majority of the PIAA championship football games have been played in Hershey, as have the vast majority, if not all of, the Big-33 Classics.  Players who had to settle for state silver the year previous might look to a selection in the Big-33 game to make up for that bitter taste.


The earliest example of this comes from the 1989 Classic, when Aliquippa’s Sean Gilbert had, only months before, been part of a stunning 13-0 loss to Berwick Area.  Aliquippa had been projected to win the inaugural “AAA” state final, but George Curry & Co. saw otherwise.  Gilbert was part of a Pennsylvania team that beat Maryland, 29-19.


The very next year, 1990, saw two athletes atone for cruel endings at Hershey.  Kerry Collins (Wilson-West Lawn) had his career end with a 12-7 loss to Upper St. Clair in the “AAAA” state finals, while Berwick’s Tom Robsock played in one of the most questionably-officiated PIAA finals ever, a 20-8 loss to Perry.  Both were part of PA’s 42-28 victory over Maryland.  Collins threw for 208 yards, completing 60 percent of his passes.


Fast-forward to 2002.  Steve Breaston, an all-everything athlete for Woodland Hills High School, had been stuffed in a Hershey mud bowl by underdog Neshaminy, 21-7.  WH had entered that state final ranked #3 in the nation by the USA-Today.  All Breaston did in the summer of ’02 was account for 281 all-purpose yards and score two touchdowns in a Pennsylvania 40-17 victory.


In the 50th anniversary program of the Big-33 Classic, it ranked the Top-25 athletes to play in the game.  Breaston’s performance came in at #4.


Dan Persa may have had the worst nightmares about Hershey Stadium.  As a junior, his Liberty Hurricanes were mercy-ruled by Dan Kopolovich and McKeesport Area, 49-10.  One year later, Persa and the Hurricanes were again mercy-ruled, this time by Dane Conwell and Upper St. Clair, 47-13.  In those two title games, Persa was relegated to running for his life or watching as potent LHS offenses were stuffed by even more potent WPIAL defenses.


In the Big-33 game, Persa was named the MVP, running for 65 yards, throwing for over 100 more, and tallying three touchdowns in a 28-10 victory for Pennsylvania.


One year later, John Laub (Parkland) was on the wrong end of the first shutout in “AAAA” state finals history.  Laub’s Trojans and their Wing-T attack were stifled by Pittsburgh Central Catholic, 21-0.  The next year, Laub played as part of the QB rotation with PCC’s Tino Sunseri, and Pennsylvania defeated Ohio, 31-16.


This year, redemption could come for multiple PA athletes.  West Catholic and Bethel Park both placed two athletes apiece on the roster, and both teams lost heartbreaker state finals to Wilmington Area and Bethlehem Liberty, respectively.


For West Catholic, it blew a 14-0 lead, and failed on two critical goal line plays, one of which would have won the Burrs the game in double-overtime.


For Bethel Park, despite an impressive two-touchdown effort from running back Lyle Marsh, couldn’t quite muster enough energy to overcome Anthony Gonzalez and Liberty, 28-21.


Atonement could come for these four athletes with a Pennsylvania win, its potential fourth straight victory in a series it already leads Ohio in, 9-7. 


Sure, there’s a silver football that’s still going to be sitting in the school trophy case after returning home, but maybe a victory against the Buckeye State could help ease some of those hard feelings toward Chocolatetown in the end.


PA has won the last three meetings against Ohio by a margin of 120-68 (40-23 average).


Information for this story courtesy of the Pennsylvania Football News’ Resource Guide, the 2007 Big-33 Classic Souvenier Program, the Big-33 Web site, and the 2008 PIAA Finals Media Guide.

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