Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Much like Quad-A, AAA was realigned from 4 conferences to 3. The biggest change was the elimination of the much-maligned Keystone Conference. AAA is much the same as it has been over the past few years. The Parkway Conference is stacked. TJ is loaded. Someone from the Greater Allegheny (likely Franklin Regional) will surprise everyone because TJ and the Parkway teams get all the press.

Big Nine

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Thomas Jefferson
Last year was a "down" year for TJ after going 6-3 overall and losing in the quarterfinals to Knoch after reaching the semi-finals 13 straight years. Despite this, the Jaguars still had a top 10 offense and defense. They lost most of their starting offensive backfield but return leading receivers Zach Schademan (49 rec, 807 yds, 8 TD) Jake Mascaro (15 rec, 294 yds, 2 TD).

West Mifflin
The Titans are the defending conference champions, and lost to eventual AAA champ Montour in the 2nd round of the playoffs. QB Derrick Fulmore (700 yds, 6 TD) returns, but the only other returning skill position player is TE Marcus Martin returns (6 rec 155 yds 1 TD). Their two leading rushers, including 1400-yard back Shamar Greene, graduated, and they will need to find someone to carry the load for an offense that was in the Top 10 in AAA last year. The Titans defense was even better, giving up only 85 points all of last season (3rd best in AAA).

Belle Vernon
The Leopards lost to Franklin Regional in first round of the playoffs and graduated two of their best skill players. However, they have a solid base for this season in one of best linemen and top D1 recruits in the state, OT Dorian Johnson (decommitted from Penn State). QB Travis Snyder played some as a freshman last year and he was their leading passer. TE Cory Urlacher returns, with 2nd leading rusher Anthony Levis who saw time as a freshman last year (25 car, 175 yds, 2 TD) With sophomores Snyder and Levis in the backfield, Belle Vernon is still building this year but watch out for them down the line as these two gain experience.

The Hillers finished in 3-way tie with Belle Vernon & Chartiers Valley for 3rd with a 4-3 record but lost head-to-head to both so they missed the playoffs. They were the only team to beat eventual conference champion West Mifflin in regular season. QB Jason Vankirk (50 comp, 872 yds, 10 TD) returns for his senior year along with leading receiver Cory Hunsberger (13/257/4), leading scorer Pat Frey (76 car, 388 yds, 12 rec, 249 yds, 8 total TD) and leading rusher Kyle Dugan (65 att, 422 yds, 5 TD).

The Rams finished 2nd in the bad Keystone conference, eventually falling to Central Valley in 2nd round. All-around threat QB Quad Law graduated, but Chris Spahr saw some time last year should start at quarterback. Second leading rusher Demetrious Louis (52 att, 486 yds, 13 TD) returns and should be the focal point of the Rams offense that was explosive behind Law last year.

Laurel Highlands
They made playoffs last year after closing out the season with back-to-back wins over Hollidaysburg and Albert Gallatin. All around threat Danzel Beasley graduated after leading the team in rushing and receiving last year.  The Mustangs return four starters on both sides of the ball and should fall somewhere in the middle of the conference.

It was a bad year in Uniontown last year. They finished in the bottom 5 in both offense and defense, one of only 5 AAA teams that failed to score 100 points and 2 of them (McGuffey and South Park) are playing in AA this year. On top of that, they were one of 5 AAA teams to give up over 300 points. JR QB Xavier Ellis figures to be the starter after seeing some time last year, and was the second leading rusher. RB Tristan Sandrosky was the leading rusher as a junior last year and 2nd leading receiver Jacqui Taylor returns. They have a lot of skill players are returning but they need to be able to find the end zone as the team's leading scorer last year was Junior kicker Flyzell Williams who scored 0 touchdowns. No one on the team found the end zone more than twice.

Elizabeth Forward
The Indians scored less than 7 points 5 times last season and will need to find an offense somewhere. Junior QB Ryan Wardropper, who has one of the best names in WPIAL figures to be the starter, had more INTs (7) than completions (6) last season. WR Matt Bernadowski led the team in receiving yards with 255 as a sophomore and should form a nice combination with Wardropper. Wardropper. Wardropper. Man, that's an awesome name.

Albert Gallatin
Albert Gallatin had a historically bad season at the bottom of the Keystone Conference. They were one of 5 AAA teams to finish the year with less than 100 points on offense and gave up a WPIAL-worst 428 points on defense. That's an average of 47.5 points against per game. And it really wasn't even that close. They held Uniontown and Derry to 19 points each but the next lowest was Ringgold who put up 40. Five teams put up over 53, topped by Franklin Regional's 70 and Greensburg Salem's 67. QBs Marty Dodson and Richie Ohler both return after splitting time last year and as well as Colin Smith, who led the team in rushing and receiving as a sophomore last year. Albert Gallatin only won once in their last 21 games, the season finale against Laurel Highlands in October 2010 .

Greater Allegheny

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Franklin Regional
Franklin Regional returns their top two playmakers from a team that fell just short of Heinz Field last year. The Panthers ran through the Keystone Conference with the best offense in all of WPIAL (447 points) and best defense in AAA (47 points against) but fell in a heart-breaker 9-7 to Knoch in the semi-finals. Leading rusher Dane Brown might be the best back in AAA after running for almost 2000 yards and 34 touchdowns as a junior last year. Yes, that's not a lie. 34 touchdowns, which meant Brown scored more points as an individual than 17 of the 31 AAA teams last year. Dual threat quarterback Nico Lodovico who accounted for 1500 yards combined rushing and passing also returns for his senior season. Kicker Mike Roberge returns for his senior year after converting 63 extra points last season. That's pretty insane, even for high school. They will face some better defenses now that the Keystone Conference is no more, but they have the playmakers to be right at the top once again.

Mars' reign atop the Greater Allegheny Conference came to an end last year when graduations finally caught up with them and they had to field a team of mostly underclassmen. That's good news for the Fighting Planets this year as Junior QB Owen Nearhoof can build on his success from his sophomore season when he threw for 672 yards and 6 TDs. Fellow Junior Jason Lozzi was the team's leading rusher (729 yards) as a sophomore last season. Second leading rusher Alex Smith also returns for his senior year. All in all, the Planets made the playoffs last year starting a bunch of sophomores and juniors and should be poised to make a run at the conference title this year.

The Talbots missed out on the playoffs by 1 game last year after starting a lot of juniors at skill positions. Hampton was middle of the road in both offense and defense but should be poised to strike this year with QB Jon Nigro (800 yards, 9 TD), RB Anthony Bianco (167 att, 738 yards. 7 TD) and FB Jake Hart all returning for their senior years. On the outside, they were led by a pair of sophomore receivers last year in Jon Floss (18 rec, 239 yds, 4 TD) and Colin Luther (12 rec, 243 yds, 3 TD). With all this talent returning at the offensive skill positions, the Talbots should be right in the mix for the Northeastern Conference crown.

The Golden Rams made it back to the postseason last year, falling to Ringgold 14-10 in the opening round. All around threat Gage Clark graduated after leading the team in passing (60 comp, 796 yards, 7 TD) and rushing (140 att, 690 yds, 10 TD) last season. Highlands lost most of their other offensive skill position players, and their success will likely rest on the shoulders of two-way player Allan Cratsenberg who will start at quarterback and linebacker. The Rams finished last season with the 4th best defense in AAA, and it showed in the playoffs as they held Ringgold (who was averaging 35 points per game) to just 14.

Last year might have been the best year in Knoch Knights history as they carried an unblemished record all the way to Heinz Field where they fell in the title game to Montour. However, they lost a lot of talent in Dual-threat QB Ky Kenyon and RB Andrew Rumburg-Goodlin. Leading receiver Ben Tackett (25 rec, 410 yds) was also the 3rd leading rusher (39 att, 269 yds) and is the best returning player for Knoch. The Knights always play suffocating defense, finishing 2nd in AAA last year allowing just 75 points in the regular season and allowing just 3 teams to score over 10 points all season. Unfortunately, one of those teams was Montour who put up 42 on them in the title game.

The Little Indians were one of the surprise teams of AAA last year, finishing 2nd in their conference after their aerial show bombed over their opponents. Unfortunately, Indiana graduated their stellar quarterback Logan Weaver who passed for over 1400 yards and ran for another 700 along with leading receiver Tyrayl Veney who had almost 1000 receiving yards. That's a lot of offense to graduate, and I don't think the Indians have the depth at play-makers to be at the top of the conference this year. They will be fighting for the last playoff spot though.

Greensburg Salem
Like the other teams atop the Keystone Conference, Greensburg Salem ran over, around, and through their opponents, posting 40+ points in 7 games. They gave perennial power Thomas Jefferson all they could handle in the first round, falling 34-28 to the Jaguars. Unfortunately, they lost their two biggest offensive threats to graduation, and will have to rely on 2nd leading rusher Tyler Shook (38 att, 552 yds, 7 TDs) to shoulder the load of the offense.

Hollidaysburg just missed out on a playoff spot, finishing tied with Laurel Highlands with a 3-4 record at the end of the year, but a 46-42 defeat left them sitting at home in October. The Golden Tigers were hit and miss on offense last year, scoring 28+ in each of their 3 wins (and 42 in their loss to Laurel Highlands) and failing to break double digits in 3 of their 4 losses. Brian Urban started at quarterback as a sophomore last year and the Tigers relied heavily on their running game. Kris Stern, their leading rusher and receiver, graduated which leaves a big hole to be filled on offense.

Derry Area
After a promising 2-0 start in conference play, Derry fell flat on their face, losing their last 5 games 49-3, 46-0, 44-7, 33-0, and 28-7. Quarterback Josh Boggio returns along with leading rusher and receiver Josh Wannamaker. Will that be enough to turn around a team that had the worst offense in AAA last year?


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Central Valley
Robert. Foster. That's about all you need to know about Central Valley this season. Foster was an all-around star last year as a junior and is now one of the top recruits in the nation. The Warriors carried an undefeated season into the Semi-Finals last year where they fell to eventual champion Montour. Foster is the only returning skill position player, but he is just that good that he should carry the Warriors to the top of the conference once again.

After a promising 5-1 start to the season, Blackhawk dropped their last 3 games to Montour, Central Valley, and New Castle, causing them to miss the playoffs. Sophomore stud quarterback Chandler Kincade was injured mid-way through the season, and if he can return to form as a junior, the 6'5" gunslinger will get even more attention from D-1 schools than he is getting already. Alex Caratelli, their leading receiver, returns for his senior season along with 2nd leading rusher Cole Chiappialle.

The defending champs will be competitive again this year, but you don't lose one of the best quarterbacks and running backs in your classification and stay on top. Graduations hit the Spartans hard and they will return only one of their offensive skill position starters - WR Devin Wilson (72 rec, 901 yds, 12 TD).

West Allegheny
Despite losing their last two games, West Allegheny found their way into the playoffs, losing to Knoch in the first round. Dual-threat QB Dylan Bongiorni graduated, but the other top rushers from the team return. Nick Halbedl ran for 323 yards and 5 TDs as a junior and Tory Delmonico added 158 and 3 TDs as a sophomore. They will be the focal points of the offense this season.

With the graduation of the leading rusher in the history of Pennsylvania High School Football, Rushel Shell, Hopewell looks to fill a giant void in their offense. Adam Murray was the team's 2nd leading rusher behind Shell last year (70 car, 343 yds) and also the team's second leading receiver (8 rec, 80 yds) and found the end zone 5 times. Murray figures to be the feature back this year and is the only major contributor returning.

New Castle
The Hurricane finished in a 3-way tie with Hopewell and West Allegheny, but missed out on a playoff spot. QB John Matarazzo threw for over 1600 yards and 23 TDs last year but was lost to graduation. Jalen Holmes led the team in rushing as a junior (171 car, 937 yds, 9 TD) and with Matarazzo's graduation, coupled with the loss of their two leading receivers, the Hurricanes may move to a run-based attack this year.

Chartiers Valley
All-around athlete Wayne Capers graduated, but a few skill position players return to a team that made the playoffs but was moved into the lethal Parkway Conference. Leading receiver Kevin Gillen and leading rusher Mike Boulos return and should be the focal point for the Colts offense. Chartiers Valley has a top 5 defense last year, but that may change in a loaded Parkway Conference this year.

Looking for a team on it's way up? Look no farther than the Moon Tigers. QB Caleb Jakiel threw for over 1000 yards as a junior last year and sophomore RB Anthony Colaianni led the team in rushing with 751 yards. These two will be the backbone of the Tigers offense that finished in the middle of the AAA pack. Their defense, on the other hand, needs to be improved. They were one of 6 AAA teams to give up over 300 points and will have to get better on that side of the ball if they're going to make a run at a playoff spot.

The Bridgers only win last year came over AA Keystone Oaks in the first week of the season. They got stomped in conference play, failing to score more than 7 points in all but 1 of their Parkway matchups. Ambridge was led by underclassmen last year and QB Nick Santiago (592 pass yards, 304 rush yards) returns along with leading rushers Kody Nichi (who also led the team in receiving) and Kenell Washington. Second leading receiver Joe Sineway returns as well. That's a lot of skill position players returning for an Ambridge team that barely broke 100 points last season. They will have to find the end zone this year if they're going to compete in this brutal conference.

Playoff Predictions

Big Nine: Thomas Jefferson, West Mifflin, Belle Vernon, Trinity, Ringgold
Northeastern: Franklin Regional, Mars, Hampton, Highlands, Knoch
Parkway: Central Valley, Blackhawk, Montour, West Allegheny, Hopewell, New Castle

Championship Prediction: Central Valley over Franklin Regional

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