PIAA “AAAA” state championship preview – Central Dauphin (14-1)
It’s been quite a while since District 3 sent a representative to the PIAA AAAA championship game. Try longer than a decade and a half. It’s actually the 20th season (if counting 1992 as the starting point) since Cumberland Valley hoisted District 3’s only PIAA AAAA championship. Lower Dauphin was the last D3 AAAA title game representative, in 1995.
And by PIAA playoff experience, Central Dauphin is a relative newcomer, though it is the Rams’ third PIAA playoff appearance in school history. The deepest the Rams had advanced in their PIAA playoff forays was the 1997 PIAA semifinals opposite Central Bucks West, and that ended with a narrow 27-24 loss.
Now, the Rams, just minutes from home, are playing on arguably their biggest stage to date.
Central Dauphin (14-1) faces six-time District 1 champion North Penn in the PIAA AAAA championship game from Hersheypark Stadium Saturday night, with kickoff slated for 6 p.m. In North Penn, the Rams’ rough-and-tumble defense will be matched against a Knight offense averaging 383 yards and 32.6 points per game.
The Mid-Penn has been the most represented of District 3’s leagues that have qualified for the PIAA finals. Including Bishop McDevitt’s berth in the AAA title game for the second consecutive season, Central Dauphin will be making the Mid-Penn’s 11th state finals appearance. The District’s seven other berths have come from the Lancaster-Lebanon League and includes Lancaster Catholic’s 2011 appearance against Tyrone.
District 3 has never sent more than two teams to the PIAA finals prior to this season. D3 sent a pair of schools in 1988, 1992, 1995 and 2009. In each instance, the region walked away with at least one state championship trophy. Having three or more teams come from a particular region is most often associated with the WPIAL, who has sent three or more teams to the PIAA finals a whopping 16 times in the now-24 years of PIAA football finals. District 11 is the only other region to send three teams or more to the state finals, sending a trio each in 2005 and 2006.
Of the vast number of programs who have made PIAA football finals appearances, 44 of them have made only one appearance and never again returned to the big stage. Those 44 teams are a combined 16-28 in state final games – the most recent champion was General McLane in 2007. The most recent runners-up were State College, Greensburg Central Catholic and Bishop McCort, in 2009.
Perhaps the Rams’ greatest offensive football team was its 2002 edition, which featured quarterback Mike Probst and running back Arden Bransford. Under then-head-coach George Chaump, the Rams rolled to the District 3 AAAA championship game, survived a solid Wilson-West Lawn team and was eliminated by eventual PIAA champion Parkland a week later, 28-21, in the quarterfinals. In that Parkland game, the Rams dug themselves an early hole and watched a rally fall just short. That ’02 CD team scored a school-record 586 points in 13 games, an average of 45.1 points per game.
The North Penn-Central Dauphin game pits teams that have scored 489 and 469 points, respectively. It’s the third consecutive season the AAAA title game has pitted two teams who didn’t yet top the 500-point mark in season points scored entering the title game. Prior to 2009, the last time both AAAA state title game reps entered the championship game with fewer than 500 points scored was in 2001, when Neshaminy faced Woodland Hills in a muddy, mucky, rainy Hersheypark Stadium.
Central Dauphin has reached this juncture with an efficient offense averaging 324 yards and 31.3 points per game. Quarterback Brandon LaVia missed the Rams’ first two games of the season, but has returned and thrown for a respectable 1,415 yards and 15 touchdowns against nine interceptions while completing 94-of-163 passes (57.7 percent). LaVia has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in his career (3,057) and is generating interest from Maryland and Penn State.
Junior running back Zayd Issah has proven to be more than just a running back. He has led the Rams in rushing and receiving yards and touchdowns scored, is second on the team in tackles and is among the team leaders in the sacks department. After running for 1,653 yards as a sophomore, Issah has plowed for 1,285 yards on 217 carries, caught 29 passes for 672 yards, scoring 30 total touchdowns (20 rush, 10 rec.), and recorded 112 tackles and 14 sacks. Division-1 FBS programs like Connecticut, Maryland, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pitt, Rutgers Syracuse, Southern California, Virgina and West Virginia have all expressed interest at some point in Issah. Drew Scales (126 rush, 845 yards, 7 TD) and Adam Hollinger (86, 620, 4) are valuable options on the ground, and receivers Sam Adams (19 rec., 301 yards, 3 TD), Scales 19, 246, 1), Bobby Schaffer (20, 180, 1) and Jesse Myers (7, 173, 2) are also targets of LaVia passes.
Central Dauphin’s offensive line is fronted by mammoth senior Zach Wilk (6’4, 275), who has major, major interest from Cornell and had sent film out to D-1 FBS programs like Penn State and Pitt, among others, to gauge their interest.
Defensively, Wilk (85 tackles, 8 sacks), Evan Schwann (69 tackles, 15.5 sacks), Nate Hamilton (111 tackles, 13 sacks, 4 blocked punts, 2 blocked field goals), Issah (4 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries), Ben Mosey (99 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries), Daylin Russo (121 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries), Hollinger (100 tackles, 3 forced fumbles) and Scales (3 INTs) have made life miserable for opposing offensive units. Between its first string and reserves, the Rams have allowed an average of 14.4 points per game, holding six opponents to seven points or less, with one shutout.
On special teams, Evan Brandes has been lights out automatic, converting 60 PATs and five field goals while also handling kickoff chores for the green and white.
Can Central Dauphin make its first PIAA finals appearance a memorable one? Or will North Penn bring District 1 its 11th PIAA football championship?
Find out Saturday night.
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