Thursday, August 30, 2012

WPIAL A Preview

Class A is often over-looked but this is some of the most exciting football you'll see in Western Pennsylvania. WPIAL obviously didn't give realigning these conferences much thought, because they did a horrible job. The Black (and Orange) Hills Conference is now absolutely STACKED. Seven of the nine teams in the conference made the playoffs last year. Conversely, the Tri-County South which has been one of the worst conferences in Single-A, lost two of its playoff teams and added two perennial bottom-feeders from the Black Hills Conference.

Big Seven Conference

View A: Big Seven in a larger map
This conference is pretty much the same as last year with Laurel dropping back down from AA and OLSH, who made a surprise run at the playoffs in their first eligible season, moving over from the Eastern Conference.

Rochester had won 15 consecutive conference games before their Week 4 loss to Sto-Rox last season. Since 2008 the Rams are 26-2 in conference play with their two losses to Sto-Rox last season and now-defunct Monaca in 2008. That's a pretty insane run. As has become commonplace for the Rams, they saw their season end at the hands of the Clairton Bears in the playoffs. Since 2008, the Rams have a 44-6 overall record with 4 of their 6 losses coming to Clairton (all 4 in the playoffs). The Rams are stacked with seniors all over the field, some of which have been playing since they were freshman, and it won't be a shock to see the Rams back atop the Big Seven this year.

The Vikings will be right in the hunt for the Conference title with QB Lenny Williams at the helm. Williams carried them to the title game last year  but was completely overmatched by Clairton's defense. As long as the Sto-Rox players can keep their grades up and stay on the field, the conference crown should come down to their game against Rochester on October 26.

Western Beaver
Western Beaver has carved out a nice little niche for themselves lately. They haven't won a conference title since 2007 but have been good enough to make the playoffs in 9 of the past 11 seasons. That likely won't change this year as they're not as good as Rochester or Sto-Rox but are better than the rest of the teams in the league with 4 starters returning on offense and 4 on defense.

The Spartans just missed the playoffs in AA last year but now they have dropped down to Single-A where they should be much more competitive. They lost most of their skill position players and have only a handful of returning starters. Laurel holds the distinction of being the last team to beat Clairton, way back in the season opener in 2009, when the kids who are Seniors now were just Freshmen.

The Chargers were the shock of the season in Single-A last year as they ran on the legs of RB Isiah Neely to a 5-4 record, just missing the playoffs. They return six starters on offense, including Neely who ran for over 1500 yards last year, and seven on defense. The move to the Big Seven could be a tough adjustment, but they should be right in the mix for a playoff spot once again.

The Lancers haven't made the playoffs in 8 years, and may have a hard time doing so once again this season. They return three key players on defense and a handful of skill position players on offense.

The Scotties were a much better team on paper than they were on the field last season. Despite winning just 1 game in conference play, they played in a lot of close games and started a ton of underclassmen. They return pretty much their entire starting lineup, including QB Joe Salmen who threw for over 1100 yards. This is a small roster so the injury risk is very high.

It will likely be another long season for the Wildcats as they lost QB Tynan Greer to transfer (Montour). The one thing they have going for them is a relatively small senior class, which means they should be able to build some experience for next season.

South Side Beaver
Things may be starting to turn around for South Side Beaver who return their 1000-yard passer and leading rusher from last season. With a new coach at the helm and a team with only seven seniors, there could be something building here. Don't look for a whole lot this season, but give it a year or two and the Rams could be back in the playoffs.

Black Hills Conference

View A: Black Hills in a larger map

This conference is loaded. WPIAL realignment didn't do these teams any favors. Seven of the nine teams made the playoffs last year and the 9 teams had a combined 57-24 record. Imani Christian Academy is new to WPIAL play this season and will play a Black Hills Conference schedule but be ineligible for the playoffs.

If you think I'm dumb enough to pick against Tom Nola and the Bears, you're insane. They have the best player in Single-A, possibly the best player in all of WPIAL in RB/DB Tyler Boyd. This is a talented, athletic team that is riding a 47-game win streak and is the 3-time defending State Champions. I could go on and on about just how good this team was last year, but this might be the best stat: their WPIAL-best defense posted 9 shutouts in 16 games (through the state championship). Only one team in their conference (Fort Cherry) scored on them, and only 3 teams scored more than once - Washington (who was a playoff team in AA), Springdale, and Southern Columbia in the PIAA Championship Game. Also, Tyler Boyd.

The Spartans lost twice last season and both teams that beat them played in Heinz Field. The Spartans return most of their starters from that team, including leading rusher and receiver Justin Vickless and quarterback Chris Shortley. Lineman Mike Kish has committed to Akron and leads a powerful group up front.

The Greyhounds are led by WVU recruit Chavas Rawlins, a dual-threat QB who had almost 1000 passing yards and over 600 rushing yards last season. Monessen fell to Springdale in the playoffs when the Dynamo ran for over 500 yards and scored 65 points. The Greyhounds were hit-and-miss last season, posting shutouts in 5 of their 6 wins but getting shut out in 2 of their 3 regular season losses.

Bishop Canevin
The Crusaders rode an undefeated record to the Semi-Finals where they fell to Sto-Rox. They lost most of their offensive skill position players but return two-way player Mike Dunn who was the defensive MVP of the Eastern Conference last season as a Junior. Canevin had the second best defense in Single-A last year, giving up only 52 points over the season.

The Buccaneers have made the playoffs in 9 of the last 10 seasons but have failed to record a single playoff victory in that span. They will be hard-pressed to return this season as most of their starters from last year graduated.

Fort Cherry
The Rangers (aka "the only team to score on Clairton in conference play last year") lost a ton of offensive players to graduation, including the school's all-time leading passer Tanner Garry. Tanner's cousin Corey led the team in rushing and also graduated. If the Rangers are going to compete for the last playoff spot, they are going to need to find offense somewhere.

Reports are that the Trojans are PISSED about the WPIAL realignment, and for good reason. They were a perennial playoff team in the Tri-County South. Now, they'll be lucky to finish better than 6th in the brutal Black Hills conference. They return only two starters on offense and five on defense.

The Cougars return six starters on offense and six on defense but even that probably won't be enough to make them competitive in this conference. They are one of two teams in the newly aligned league that did not make the playoffs last year.

Serra Catholic
Last year was a tough first season for coach Jamie Eckels. This is an incredibly young team with only two seniors on the team. The Eagles will likely finish at the bottom of the league this year, but as the younger players gain experience, they could make a move down the line.

Imani Christian
This is their first year of WPIAL competition so they are ineligible for the playoffs. However, they have some talented athletes and could give some of the top teams in the conference a run for their money. I only put them at the bottom of the list because they are playoff-ineligible. More than likely, they will finish with a record somewhere in the middle.

Eastern Conference

View A: Eastern in a larger map

Every year the Eastern Conference is vastly under-rated heading into the playoffs by the local news media and every year teams like Avonworth, Springdale, and North Catholic surprise people. The story of the year might be the West Shamokin Wolves who are riding a WPIAL-record 44-game losing streak.

The Dynamos have the distinction of being the only team to score 20 points against Clairton last season. Unfortunately, they gave up 34 points and their season ended in the quarterfinals. This year, they will have to find their way without long-time coach Chuck Wagner. 1200-yard rusher Sean Dugan returns, along with a handful of other starters. Springdale should be right in the middle of the fight for the conference title once again this season.

The Antelopes had 19 seniors graduate from their team last season but return four starters on offense and four on defense. Even with the high turnover, the Lopes should be right at the top of the heap again this year. Winning begets winning and this has been a highly successful program that doesn't look like it's about to take a step back any time soon.

North Catholic
The Trojans have quietly put together a solid run of seasons over the last half-decade, and missed out on the playoffs last year because of a 3-way tie with OLSH and Northgate, their first time missing the post-season since 2005. Five starters return on offense, including leading receiver Shawn Tunstall. It's likely that a lot of underclassmen will see time this season for the Trojans so they could be a team to watch down the line.

The Flames burst onto the scene with an explosive passing attack last season and snuck into the playoffs by winning a 3-way tie with OLSH and North Catholic. Eight offensive starters return, but unfortunately one of them is not QB Jon Girvin, who has graduated. Figuring out the QB position will be a key for the Flames, but returning this many starters from a playoff team should put them right in the mix once again.

The Vikings have dropped down from AA and look to have better fortune in the Eastern Conference. They played a lot of sophomores and freshmen last season, so they have a good base of experience for this year. The drop to Single-A should put them in the mix for a playoff spot.

The Raiders always seem to be in the No Man's Land of the Eastern Conference. They're clearly better than the teams below them but never good enough to make a push for the playoffs. They return four starters on offense and five on defense from a team that went 2-7 last season.

The Tigers had a marginally better season last year, putting together 2 wins behind a spread offense that throws the ball all over the yard. Two wins might not seem like much, but they have been in the basement of the league every year since 2004.

Last year was a season to forget for the Blue Devils, posting an 0-9 record where they scored only 58 points and surrendered 299. Things should get better as they return almost their entire starting lineup (8 on offense, 7 on defense).

West Shamokin
The Wolves are carrying a WPIAL-record 44-game losing streak into this season, but the drop from AA to A should give them an opportunity to snap the streak. The opening of their schedule is brutal, but they will have an opportunity against the bottom teams in the conference when the calendar flips to October. Their October slate features Wilkinsburg, Leechburg, and Apollo-Ridge along with non-conference games against South Side Beaver who has been a bottom-feeder for the last few years and a season finale against Allegheny-Clarion Valley, who was the last team they beat (on September 21, 2007).

Tri-County South

View A: Tri-County South in a larger map

For as good as realignment made the Black Hills Conference, it made the Tri-County South equally as bad. Only two teams in the new conference made the playoffs last year and the teams combined for a 26-55 record.

After running through the conference last season, they should have no problem repeating the feat with a league that lost two of its playoff teams and added two teams with a combined 1-17 record last year. The Bulldogs have only lost 2 conference games since 2008 and it's a safe bet they'll run the table again this season.

Almost by default this is the #2 team in the conference. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 last season, They lost most of their offensive backfield from last season, but they should be good enough to make the playoffs again this season.

Junior Brandon Lawless returns as the quarterback for the Mighty Mikes and will have to take better care of the ball after throwing 11 interceptions last season. They closed out the season well, winning their last two against Geibel and Mapletown and were competitive in most of their losses last season. Most of their offensive skill position players return, including RB Brandon McMinn who had 758 yards last year.

The Rockets return 6 offensive starters and 9 defensive starters from a team that made a push for a playoff spot, finishing in 5th place with a 4-4 conference record. JM was riding high after a 42-41 victory over Carmichaels in Week 6 last year, holding a 4-1 conference record. Unfortunately, that was the last time they would see the end zone, getting shut out by a combined 124-0 score over the last 3 weeks. With all the returning starters, they should be right in the thick of the playoff race in a depleted conference.

Before their 2-7 season last year, the Maples had won a total of 2 games in the last 3 seasons. They don't have much talent returning from that team, but they're probably better than the rest of the teams here.

They were one of the heart-warming stories of WPIAL a few years back when injuries forced them to start members of the band and cheerleading squad. At one point they only had 11 or 12 players on their roster. Things have gotten better of late for the Eagles, and they return 9 starters on both offense and defense. They were winless last season and had the 3rd worst offense (56 points) and 2nd worst defense (383 points allowed) in Single-A.

The Gators are no longer the holders of WPIAL's longest losing streak (thanks to West Shamokin), but their 1-8 finish was a bit of a step back after winning 3 games for a few years in a row. Geibel had one of the 3rd-worst defense in Single-A last year, giving up 362 points, including 6 games where the opponents put up at least 40 on them.

This team is an example of why games aren't played on paper. After a decent showing in a 36-23 loss to City League Westinghouse in the opening week of the season, the Bearcats failed to find the end zone over the next seven weeks. They were so bad on both sides of the ball, their closest game was a 46-0 drubbing by Carlynton. However, things turned around in the last week of the season when they faced winless Avella and were able to post a 19-8 victory. Bentworth's 42 points was the worst offense in all of WPIAL and their 413 points against was second-worst in all WPIAL yet they managed a victory in their season finale.

West Greene
The Pioneers and Mapleton have been the perennial bottom-feeders in the Tri-County South over the last four seasons. Since October 2007, they are 1-40 with their only victory over Mapletown in 2010. I honestly have no clue what to expect here with the addition of some other bottom-feeders to the league.

Playoff Predictions

Big Seven Conference: Rochester, Sto-Rox, Western Beaver, Laurel
Black Hills Conference: Clairton, Brentwood, Monessen, Bishop Canevin
Eastern Conference: Springdale, Avonworth, North Catholic, Northgate
Tri-County South Conference: Beth-Center, Frazier, Carmichaels, Jefferson-Morgan

Championship Prediction: Clairton over Sto-Rox

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