When McGuffey football coach Ed Dalton prepares for an opponent, he has his players do a homework assignment.
“We give them a player on the opposing team to watch on film, and we want a report turned in on him by the next practice,” Dalton said. “Then at practice, I'll ask them to tell me something and why they graded the player that way.”
That is one technique high school football coaches use to get their players focused when their team is an underdog in the WPIAL playoffs, which begin Friday.
One of Dalton's Trinity teams pulled off one of the biggest WPIAL upsets in the past 10 years.
“We were the 15th seed going against second-seeded Penn Hills,” said Dalton, who coached the Hillers for 12 seasons. “After the players evaluated the Penn Hills team, they felt they could win.
“It was a perfect storm. We came in with a lot of confidence, and they were coming off playing their rival.”
Trinity upset Penn Hills, 20-17, in 2005 and advanced to the quarterfinals where it fell to Mt. Lebanon, 34-30.
McGuffey (6-3) is seeded 11th in the 2015 WPIAL Class AA tournament and will travel to No. 6 Freeport (8-1) at 7:30 p.m. Friday for an opening-round game. Dalton likes his team's chances.
“The players have become pretty good at grading their opponent,” Dalton said. “We had them evaluate themselves after the first two scrimmages, and they were pretty critical of themselves. It helps them prepare for an opponent.”
Coaches use different tactics to prepare for opponent, especially when they aren't the favorite.
They figure upsets can happen anytime. The NCAA basketball tournament is proof of that, especially in the opening rounds.
Probably the biggest upset in recent memory came in 1998 when No. 16 Greensburg Salem went to Murrysville and defeated No. 1 Franklin Regional, 17-14.
The Golden Lions had nothing to lose and played one of their best games of the season. Franklin Regional was undefeated that season and had defeated McKeesport, Woodland Hills, Penn Hills and Gateway.
But Greensburg Salem's defense held Franklin Regional 17 points under its average, and Adam Kucenic booted a 29-yard field goal with eight second left to clinch it.
Over the past six seasons in the WPIAL tournament, there have been a few upsets, especially for teams seeded third or fourth.
Last year, No. 13 Plum defeated No. 4 Penn Hills, 17-6, and No. 13 Riverside edged No. 4 Beth-Center, 21-20.
In 2013, No. 3 Kittanning was shocked by No. 14 Yough, 57-42.
Armstrong coach Frank Fabian, who coached Kittanning in that game and is preparing his team to battle No. 6 Thomas Jefferson (7-2), knows what it feels like to be beaten by an underdog. The River Hawks (6-3) are seeded 11th.
“Yough's quarterback (Tyler Donahue) missed some games early, and they came in healthy against us,” Fabian said. “They were playing at a high level.
“We've told the players you can't control how Thomas Jefferson plays. You have to hang your hat on what you do best and play the best Armstrong can play. You try to keep it simple. You're playing one game, and whatever team is playing the best that night will win.”
Greensburg Central Catholic coach Dan Mahoney was an assistant in 2010 when the Centurions, ranked No. 2, were upset by Keystone Oaks, 20-16.
GCC wasn't the only upset victim that night. No. 13 Bethel Park squeezed past No. 4 McKeesport, 24-21, and No. 14 Central Valley toppled No. 3 Ringgold, 21-13. Central Valley used that win as a springboard to win the WPIAL title.
“When you prepare as an underdog, you talk to the players about what you did well and who your opponent defeated during the season,” Mahoney said. “The first-round game is always tough to win.
“It really comes down to who wants it more and wants to keep playing. Sometimes teams already have had enough, and it doesn't matter what you do.”
No. 10 Greensburg Central Catholic (7-2) plays at No. 7 Bishop Canevin (7-2) at Dormont Stadium.
Laurel Highlands coach Zach Just, whose Mustangs (5-4) are seeded No. 16 and will play No. 1 Central Valley (8-1), said he doesn't do anything special to motivate his team. Central Valley is the defending WPIAL Class AAA champion and defeated Laurel Highlands, 46-26, last season in the first round.
“We've already played some of the top teams in Class AAA in our (Big 10) conference,” Just said. “And we played well against Central Valley in last year's playoffs, so the players know what they have to do.
“We rely some on our previous experience. We were in every game in the conference and just didn't make enough plays at the end. It's not an insurmountable task for us.”
Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said he doesn't do anything special to pump up his team when it's an underdog.
“We just rely on the player's intelligence,” Botta said. “The players know a lot about their opponents. They know what it takes to get up for a game.”
Sometimes a coach doesn't have any tactic that will work.
“In my first season at Trinity (2000), I wouldn't let my team watch tape on Woodland Hills,” Dalton said. “They were that good, and I didn't want them to know what they were up against.”
Woodland Hills won 50-0.
With 32 WPIAL playoff games scheduled Friday night, there more than likely will be a few upsets. It also is more than likely each of those underdogs have found a way to prepare for their biggest test of the year.