Looking at this bracket, the first thing that jumps out is that Rochester, not Clairton, is the #1 overall seed. Clairton is #3 with Laurel at #2 and North Catholic at #4. The bracket sets up very nicely for Clairton and Laurel to meet in the semi-finals on the right side of the bracket. Rochester has a pretty easy road to the semi-finals and shouldn't be challenged by anyone in their pod.
Rochester, Clairton, Laurel, and North Catholic should cruise to victories over inferior opponents. Springdale, Monaca, and Serra will be dangerous teams on the road. Expect at least two of these teams to win. The Fort Cherry-Brentwood game will be a toss-up, like any 8-9 game usually is.
Predictions: Rochester, Brentwood, North Catholic, Monessen, Laurel, Serra, Clairton, Monaca
Rochester will get its first test of the playoffs against Brentwood. After a close first half, Rochester will pull away and move to the semis.
North Catholic and Monessen will be the best game of the quarter finals. North Catholic in a close one at JC Stone field.
Clairton will cruise over Monaca in the Indians last game before they merge with Center next year.
Laurel and Serra will match up the only two teams to beat North Catholic this year. Laurel was also the only team to beat Clairton, so you have to like their chances at home.
Semi-Finals: It's hard to pick against Clairton or Rochester here. Laurel was the only team to down the Clairton Bears this year, but at a neutral location, you have to like the defending champs to come out strong. As much as I might be a homer for North Catholic, I just don't see them beating Rochester. A good run to the semi-finals for the Trojans, making their first appearance there since 2001, but they just can't get past Rochester.
Championship: A great matchup between a Clairton team averaging 47.6 points for and 4.2 points against and Rochester (35.8/3.7). Clairton has a reputation for stingy defense, and this will likely be a low-scoring affair. Look for a key defensive turnover to decide things. I like Clairton to repeat in a close one.
The fist thing that jumps out here is the number of very, very dangerous teams that have to travel for road games in the first round of the playoffs. These teams include Aliquippa, Sto-Rox, Burrell, and Greensburg Central Catholic. Due to the fact that there are 39 AA teams, no one has been tested against out-of-conference opponents, so we really have no barometer for how good any of these teams really are.
First Round: South Fayette and Mt. Pleasant are the only two AA teams that haven't lost yet this season. Look for these two to continue their winning ways. The Midwestern Conference might be the best conference in AA, so don't be surprised if Center, Beaver Falls, and Aliquippa all win their first round games. Honestly, you have to like Sto-Rox and Greensburg CC on the road. GCC-Freeport is a rematch of a first round game last year.
Predictions: South Fayette, Aliquippa, Beaver Falls, Sto-Rox, Mt. Pleasant, Keystone Oaks, Center, Greensburg CC
Second Round: The matchup of the playoffs so far features the #1 AA offense (GCC) and #1 AA defense (Center). Aliquippa is a young team, but also the defending champions, and their coaches know how to bring home a championship. Beaver Falls and Sto-Rox would be a matchup worth travelling to see, with the Penn State recruit at QB for Sto-Rox against last year's runner up.
Predictions: Aliquippa, Beaver Falls, Keystone Oaks, Center
Semi-Finals. Like I said at the outset, the Midwestern Conference is the best group in AA. Aliquippa's young roster has done a lot of growing this year, but I still think Beaver Falls is the better team. Center keeps riding their #1 defense and gets a rematch with the only team to beat them in the title game.
Championship: Center is playing with a lot of emotion as it is their last game before the school district merger with Monaca, but Beaver Falls has the experience and is just too much at Heinz Field.
This bracket starts and stops with TJ and Hopewell. The bracket-makers are obviously very impressed with Char Valley, whose only loss was a conference loss to TJ. They get the #3 overall seed and are set for a certain date with Hopewell in the semis.
First Round: I said that I wouldn't be surprised if all 4 Keystone Conference teams went down in the first round, and with the 5th, 7th, 14th, and 16th seeds, the bracket-makers obviously agree with me. The Keystone Conference is 0-32 in the WPIAL playoffs in the last 8 years. No questioning TJ, Char Valley, and Hopewell here.
Predictions: Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Regional, West Allegheny, New Castle, Hopewell, Mars, Chartiers Valley, Belle Vernon
Second Round: These ones are even more obvious. AAA is three elite teams and everyone else.
Predictions: Thomas Jefferson, West Allegheny, Hopewell, Chartiers Valley
Semi-Finals: TJ will cruise to their 1,000,00th straight WPIAL title game. Hopewell-Char Valley will be the best game of the AAA playoffs so far, and with the running game that they have, I like Hopewell to win this one.
Championship: A great showdown in the early evening at Heinz Field. Hopewell's great running game against TJ's AAA-best defense. TJ has been there before and done it time and time again. TJ is ranked among the top 50 football teams in the nation, with the likes of Quad-A schools. I don't know what's in the water out in West Jefferson Township, but it breeds championships. Hopewell will crack their defense, but I like Thomas Jefferson to bring home another WPIAL title.
For the second year in a row, Gateway is the #1 seed in the playoffs. Bethel Park came out of the #3 seed last year to upset #2 McKeesport and then Gateway on their way to a WPIAL title and a trip to the PIAA title game. This year, Bethel Park is the #3 seed again this year with McKeesport sitting at #5.
First Round: The teams at the top of this bracket are much, much better than the teams at the bottom. Shaler-Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair-Penn Hills will be the best games of the first round, as they will likely be the only ones within 2 scores.
Predictions: Gateway, Penn Hills, North Allegheny, McKeesport, Woodland Hills, Central Catholic, Bethel Park, Shaler
Second Round: Here is where the games start to get interesting. Gateway, the only undefeated AAAA team, gets a very good Penn Hills squad. McKeesport has to travel to North Allegheny for a game against a good Tigers squad that has beated Mt. Lebanon and Penn Hills this year. McKeesport has been known to blow big games in the past, and NA's team this year has the chance to do what Bethel Park did last year (namely, come out of no where and make a run). Woodland Hills-Central Catholic will be a conference rematch of the 27-3 stomping the Wolverines put on the Vikings earlier this year.
Predictions: Gateway, North Allegheny, Woodland Hills, Bethel Park
The top 4 seeds remain as we move to neutral sites. Bethel and Gateway met in the championship last year, but both of them are in for some big-time fights. Bethel's only loss this year was a 21-17 defeat at Woodland Hills. NA has the #1 defense and #3 offense in Quad-A while Gateway sports the #2 defense and #1 offense. In a matchup of strength on strength, it could go either way. Both of these games are toss-ups.
Predictions: Gateway, Woodland Hills
Finals: In the fourth great finals matchup of the day, Gateway and Woodland Hills. Woodland Hills has the #4 offense and #3 defense in Quad-A. Their only loss of the year has come against a team from Ohio in a preseason tournament in Wheeling. This game could go either way, but I'm going to pick a Gateway Gators team that is out for blood after losing in the title game last year.
So there you have it. Did I make a lot of safe picks? Absolutely. But if there's one thing we know from experience in WPIAL, it's that there are some teams (Aliquippa being one of them) that always put together good runs in the playoffs.