Wednesday, August 29, 2012

WPIAL AA Preview

AA saw the addition of some old friends, particularly the South Park Eagles who won the AA state title in 2005. This should be a fun year for AA ball as most of the conferences are wide open. The Allegheny Conference might be the most wide open with 5 teams that could claim the crown. South Fayette and Seton-La Salle have a lot in common in the Century Conference and are head-and-shoulders above the rest. Jeanette will get a run for their money from Washington. All told, Aliquippa is still the premier program and I wouldn't be surprised to see them raising the trophy at Heinz Field again this year.

Allegheny Conference

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After a disappointing 2-2 start to the season, including a loss to rival Burrell, the Yellow Jackets stormed back to win their last 5 games and win the Allegheny Conference title last season. They fell to Ellwood City in the playoffs after second half turnovers allowed Ellwood City to mount a stunning come-from-behind victory. 1300-yard rusher Damon Smith returns for his senior season, along with quarterback Brendan Lynch.

Ford City
The Sabres have had a winning record in 11 consecutive seasons, but that was in jeopardy halfway through last season as their ineffective offense left them sitting at 2-3. They put things together and won their last 4 games to finish 3rd in the conference. Nevertheless, for a team that used to pride itself on being able to run, run, run, Ford City had a bit of a setback last year. Their defense was one of the top 10 in AA and they needed it as their offense failed to score more than 14 points through the first 5 games and only broke 21 points twice. Leading rusher and receiver Devan Willyard returns, but will need to find the end zone more this season.

East Allegheny
The Wildcats were always in the playoff mix in the Interstate Conference and have been shuffled over to the Allegheny Conference. They should remain competitive as Junior Kyle Whipple enters his second year as starting quarterback after throwing for 814 yards and 11 TDs as a sophomore. He also gets his two leading receivers back in Shawn Adair and TE Jason Henshaw.

Shady Side Academy
An early-season loss to Freeport was all that kept this team from a conference title last year, and they were in the top 10 in AA in both offense and defense.  They lost dual-threat QB Reggie Mitchell, but second leading rusher Jared Brevard (725 yds, 15 TDs) returns.

The Bucs fell just short of forcing a 3-way tie for the conference title when they lost to Ford City 14-13 in the final week of the season. That put them at the bottom of the heap and drew them a powerful Jeanette team in the first round of the playoffs. Cole Bush is an all-around athlete who led the team with 1032 rushing yards, was second in receiving yards, scored 24 touchdowns and was an All-Conference Linebacker as a Junior last season.

Deer Lakes
The Lancers made the playoffs for the first time in school history 2 years ago but subsequently lost the entire starting lineup to graduation. Deer Lakes was one of 4 AA teams that failed to score 100 points last season, and was shut out 3 times. Their offense has to improve if they're going to compete for the playoffs this season.

Looking for a sleeper team in AA? How about the Valley Vikings. After getting routinely stomped in AAA, Valley moves down to AA and might find the level of play more to their liking. Valley returns 6 starters on both sides of the ball and will look to turn around a team carrying a 22-game losing streak into the season.

The only thing that kept Kittanning from putting a goose egg on the board last year was that they got to play Valley. The Wildcats have a new coach and a new offense, moving from their traditional Wing-T to a spread this season. Looks to be another rebuilding year.

Summit Academy
Trying to predict this team is a hit-or-miss venture. Summit Academy is a school for kids in trouble with the law and has a very high turnover rate. They won a few games last season and were in the hunt for a playoff spot down to the wire, but with almost an entirely new roster each year, it's hard to say how they'll perform.

Century Conference

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South Fayette
This is really a two-team race between the Lions and Seton-La Salle. Both teams have one of the Brumbaugh brothers at quarterback, but I think the Lions have more play-makers than the Rebels, which puts them at the top of my list. The key component is Pitt recruit WR Zach Challingsworth who had 704 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Brett Brumbaugh will have plenty of weapons in the passing game and it should be another aerial show, just like when Brett's older brother Christian led the Lions to a WPIAL title two years ago.

Seton-La Salle
The gap between the Lions and the Rebels isn't much, as Seton-La Salle boasts 1200-yard passer Luke Brumbaugh who has his own Pitt recruit, TE Scott Orndoff, to throw to. The Rebels will have to find a way to fill star RB Kevin Hart's shoes, as Hart accounted for 1723 rush yards and 255 receiving yards last season.

Steel Valley
The Ironmen have made the playoffs in 3 consecutive seasons and should make it 4 in a row as they return 7 starters on offense and 5 on defense. 1500-yard rusher Dontez Williams graduated, but most of the other offensive skill players return and this should continue to be a potent offense after finishing in the top 10 in AA last season.

Keystone Oaks
The Golden Eagles return five starters on offense, including leading rusher Dale Klobuchir (1120 yards, 9 TDs) and leading receiver Corey Sevacko (31 rec, 406 yds, 4 TDs). Keystone Oaks was betrayed by their defense last season, which ranked 28th out of 34 AA teams, giving up over 20 points in all but 2 games. If the Eagles can improve on defense, they can make a run at the last playoff spot again this season.

South Park
South Park is part of a pair of teams that dropped from the Big Eight conference in AAA down to the Century Conference in AA. The Eagles haven't made the playoffs since 2005 when they hoisted the trophy at Heinz Field as WPIAL champions. There are some question marks at quarterback and running back, but their two leading receivers return and they could make some noise now that they're back down in AA.

Quaker Valley
The Quakers threw a wrench into the Century Conference playoff race last season when they toppled Steel Valley in the penultimate game of the season. They return most of their offensive skill players including QB Burke Moser (788 yards, 7 TDs) and Aaron Cunningham who was 2nd on the team in rushing and receiving as a freshman last year. Neighboring Cornell school district eliminated their football program this year and QV has reaped the rewards, entering into a partnership program that allows Cornell's athletes to suit up for QV.

The Blue Devils made an early season push and looked as though they might be competitive, starting 4-2 overall and 2-2 in conference play. However, they dropped their last 3 games, getting shut out twice and giving up 35+ in each game. Leading rusher and receiver John Dugas returns for his senior season.

The Highlanders were winless in AAA last season and the drop down to AA may make things easier for a team that scored only 80 points last season. Three starters on offense, including leading receiver Jake Seabright, return along with four on defense.

South Allegheny
South Allegheny had one of the worst offenses in AA last season and graduated start TE Jesse James, who is now at Penn State. There aren't a whole lot of positives in this outlook and it figures to be another long year for the Gladiators.

Interstate Conference

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QB Demetrious Cox led the Jayhawks to the WPIAL championship last season, but he has graduated and headed off to Michigan State. Leading receiver and second leading rusher Jordan Edmunds returns along with second leading rusher and second leading receiver Shavonta Craft. If the Jayhawks can find someone to fill Cox's shoes at quarterback they should win the conference and be right in the mix for a WPIAL title once again.

After a few down seasons, the Prexies exploded on to the scene last year, finishing 2nd in the Century Conference. Washington had one of the top 10 offenses in AA, breaking 30 points in 6 of their 9 regular season games. They blew out Mt. Pleasant in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Aliquippa in the Quarterfinals. The best part about it? Most of their skill players were underclassmen and are back again this year. QB Josh Wise gets some weapons back on the outside and leading rusher Shai McKenzie who led the team with over 1200 yards as a sophomore. If everything falls into place, you could see this team at Heinz Field in November.

Greensburg Central Catholic
The Centurions released their long-time head coach a few weeks ago and this is a team that has seen some offseason turmoil with leading rusher Jordan McCrae transferring to Connellsville. The offense, which was in the top 5 in AA last season, may take a hit, but the defense (also a top 5 unit) should remain strong with a number of returning starters.

Mt. Pleasant
The Vikings have been hovering around relevance the last few seasons - making the playoffs but not making any noise. However, they could take the next step this year with dual-threat Junior QB Ryan Gumbrita who started as a sophomore last year. Leading rushers and receivers Tyler Mellors (495 rush yds, 112 rec yds, 5 TD) and Taylor Allison (496 rush yds, 149 rec yds, 6 TD) both return for a team that was in the middle of the AA offensive pack.

The Scotties had one of the worst defenses in AA last season, being one of 5 teams to allow more than 300 points. Despite this, they posted a 3-win season which was good enough to put them in a tie for 5th place. A big reason for this was QB Dakota Datz who passed for over 1700-yards and was the team's leading rusher. Datz returns for his senior season along with second-leading rusher Tyler Ramsey.

Much like the Scotties, if the Yough Cougars can patch together a defense, they might have something here. They also gave up over 300 points last season but if they can find something - anything - on defense, Junior QB Tyler Donahue, who threw for 1156 yards and 11 TDs as a sophomore, can make them competitive.

The Cougars finished tied with Brownsville at the bottom of the conference last year, and the graduation of leading rusher Quentin Briggs won't help their cause this season. Their only conference win came over Brownsville and they struggled on defense, giving up 40+ points on 4 occasions.

After seasons of futility, the Red Raiders put things together for a 3-win season and finished 5th in the conference last year. However, they graduated pretty much their entire starting lineup and will probably not be able to take the next step towards competitiveness this season.

Brownsville was one of 4 AA teams not to score 100 points last season and they finished at the bottom of the conference once again. This team hasn't done much lately but did manage to post a win over a mediocre Waynesburg team last season. For a team that's been as bad as Brownsville, that's something to build on, and with a returning quarterback and a few skill players, they will look to get out of the basement this season.

Midwestern Conference

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The Quips are the reigning AA champions and have played at Heinz Field for 5 consecutive seasons, going 3-2 in title games. Anything less than a return to Heinz will be a disappointment this year. RB/DB Dravon Henry, one of the best juniors in WPIAL, led the team with 1365 rushing yards last season. The Quips dominated on both sides of the ball with the best offense in AA last year and the #3 defense. They should be just as good this season.

Beaver Falls
As has become commonplace for the Tigers, they boasted a top 5 offense and top 10 defense and finished in 2nd place behind Aliquippa. Leading rusher Trey Hall and QB Weslley Nesmith graduated, but Beaver Falls is stacked with athletes that can step in and play. Senior RB/LB Rob Bell was the defensive captain as a junior before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 6 last season. This team will be competitive as always and right there in the mix come playoff time.

The Bobcats started last season on a defensive tear - shutting out their first 3 opponents and not allowing more than 7 points until a Week 7 loss to Aliquippa. All in all, the best defense in AA posted 5 shutouts in 8 conference games. But their defense betrayed them in the playoffs as they let Shady Side Academy run up 35 points on them en route to a first round exit. The Bobcats return some starters and should make it 6 consecutive playoff appearances this season.

The Panthers stumbled out of the gate last year, winning only once in their first 5 games. However, they flipped the switch when the calendar turned to October and won their last 4, giving up only a touchdown in each of the last 3. Those last 4 included a win over rival Ellwood City, which should set the tone for this season. QB Devin Kelosky (702 yds, 6 TDs) returns along with second leading rusher and receiver Bob Gould who had 10 total touchdowns last year.

Ellwood City
After being one of the worst teams of the late 2000s, Ellwood City has turned things around of late and looks to make their 3rd consecutive playoff appearance. This team was a bit of an enigma last year after they won an emotional game over Beaver Falls in the penultimate game of the season then dropped their rivalry game to Riverside. They came back and upset Freeport in the first round of the playoffs before falling to GCC in the quarterfinals. They lost a lot of talent from last year's team and their rivalry game against Riverside could decide the last playoff spot.

New Brighton
The Lions haven't made the playoffs in over a decade, and if they're going to do it this year the pressure will fall on Junior RB Kellen Mackey. Mackey led the team in rushing with 800 yards and 11 TDs as a sophomore last season and if he can make the next step as a Junior, this team could challenge Riverside and Ellwood City for the last playoff spot.

The Bulldogs had the worst defense in AA last season, giving up 385 points last season. They gave up 42+ points in 6 games last season. They return their starting quarterback and leading receiver, but until they can find a way to stop teams from scoring, it's going to be another long year for Freedom.

For as bad as things were for Freedom last year, they beat Mohawk. The Warriors had the 2nd worst offense (61 points) and 2nd worst defense (381 points allowed) in AA. The one positive was that their underclassmen got some experience after the team suffered a handful of injuries last season. The experience could prove valuable, but a team that can't score and can't stop anyone is going to have a hard time being competitive.

Playoff Predictions

Allegheny Conference: Freeport, Ford City, East Allegheny, Shady Side Academy
Century Conference: South Fayette, Seton-La Salle, Steel Valley, Keystone Oaks
Interstate Conference: Jeanette, Washington, GCC, Mt. Pleasant
Midwestern Conference: Aliquippa, Beaver Falls, Beaver, Riverside

Championship Prediction: Aliquippa over Washington

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