Thursday, August 29, 2013

WPIAL Week 1 Games of the Week

The High School football season kicks off tonight in Western Pennsylvania. If you're not heading down to PNC Park to watch the Buccos take on the Cardinals with first place on the line, there are some early season WPIAL games that are worth your attention. If you really want to enter a sports coma, put the Bucs on TV and listen to the MSA Sports online broadcast of a high school game.

Big Boys Game of the Week
Upper St Clair at Woodland Hills

These are two powerhouse programs that were both in the semi-finals last season. Jim Render and George Novak are two of the best coaches in WPIAL history and both teams feature D1 talent. This is a must-see game if you're in the East End on Friday night.

Honorable Mentions: McKeesport at Hempfield, Mt. Lebanon at North Allegheny

Parkway Conference Game of the Week
New Castle at Central Valley

The Parkway Conference is loaded with talented teams. Rather than trying to choose the AAA game of the week, I'm just going to call it the Parkway Conference Game of the Week, because until the West Mifflin-Thomas Jefferson game, the top Parkway matchup will be the best game in AAA. New Castle with Ohio State commit Malik Hooker (DB/WR) travels to Central Valley to take on a talented Warriors team looking for their third straight conference title.

Honorable Mentions: Franklin Regional at Mars, Montour at Hopewell, West Allegheny at Blackhawk

AA Game of the Week
GCC at Washington

Washington RB Shai McKenzie kicks off his campaign to break Rushel Shell's single-season rushing record at home against Greensburg Central Catholic. The Centurions have one of the best group of linebackers in AA. Washington has to replace most of the rest of their offense around McKenzie, but he has the talent to single-handedly dominate the game. GCC needs a strong start to their season to keep themselves in playoff contention.

Honorable Mentions: South Fayette at McGuffey, South Allegheny at Seton-La Salle (Saturday)

Small School Game of the Week
Apollo-Ridge at North Catholic

The Trojans and the Vikings both made the playoffs last season and return most of their skill players. Two of the best juniors in Class A will be featured in this game in North Catholic RB PJ Fulmore and Apollo-Ridge WR Tre Tipton. The winner will have the inside track towards the conference title right out of the gate.

Honorable Mentions: Avonworth at Rochester, Chartiers-Houston at Clairton

WPIAL A Preview

The High School football season kicks off on Friday. In keeping with annual tradition, we're going to look at each classification of the WPIAL. The four semi-finalists (Clairton, Sto-Rox, North Catholic and Neshannock) should all be right in the mix for the championship again this season. Sto-Rox has the best passer in Class A in Lenny Williams while North Catholic has the best running back in PJ Fulmore. All in all, don't bet against the Bears who have won 5 straight Class A titles and carry a 63-game winning streak into the 2013 season. Teams are listed by my predicted order of finish. Don't forget to check out the WPIAL Standings page, which I will be updating throughout the season.

All helmet images from PA Helmet Project.

Big Seven Conference

View A: Big Seven in a larger map

The Vikings have fallen to Clairton in the previous two Single-A Championship games and look to make a return trip to Heinz Field this season. Sto-Rox is stacked once again this season with senior QB Lenny Williams at the helm whose only interceptions last season were in the championship game. Williams has been starting since his freshman year and has thrown for over 5300 yards in his career and has a legitimate chance to break the WPIAL career passing mark of 7,162 yards if he duplicates his 2200-yard season from last year. That will be a difficult feat as Williams recently had surgery on his hand after a hedge-trimming accident while he was working for the McKees Rocks public works summer crew which may keep him out the first few weeks. The Vikings have talent around Williams in RB Brendan Blair and WR Javelle Kirkland.

The Lancers pulled the comeback of the season when they staged a massive 4th quarter rally to defeat Sto-Rox last year. After a run to the semi-finals, expectations are high in 2013. Neshannock returns their explosive backfield with both QB Ernie Burkes (1560 passing yards, 800 rushing yards, 30 total TDs) and RB Eli Owens (1268 rushing yards). If the Lancers can repeat their performance against Sto-Rox, they have a chance to win the Big Seven title.

The Rams have been a playoffs mainstay in Class A and have advanced at least to the quarterfinals every season since 1999. Since 2000 they have reached the semi-finals in all but 2 years and played in the Championship Game 8 times. They have to replace some highly productive players, but the Rams always have a stable of backs capable of carrying the load in their run-heavy offense.

Western Beaver
The Golden Beavers have made the playoffs in 9 of the last 12 years and if recent trends hold they will make a return this season. Western Beaver returns all 5 starters along the line and backfield contributors Steve Robison and Hunter Roknich who both saw time at QB and RB last season. If Western Beaver wants to return to the playoffs, they will have to improve their defense which was worst in the conference and 5th worst in Class A.

The Spartans hold the prestige as being the last team to defeat the Clairton Bears. Dual-threat QB Josh Dando returns after accumulating over 1000 yards of total offense last season. The Spartans finished a game out of the playoffs last season and should be right in the thick of the race again this year.

The Wildcats return most of their backfield from the team that went 3-6 in 2012. The top three rushers, top passer and three members of the offensive line return. Shenango has not made the playoffs since 2006 when they played in AA, but could be in the mix for the last spot in the conference this year.

South Side Beaver
The Rams will change the dynamic of the Big Seven Conference by having Friday night home games instead of Saturday afternoon games after adding lights to their stadium. Their two wins last season were double their win total from the two previous seasons and things seem to be trending in the right direction. The Rams will run a Wing-T offense and return two of their top three rushers from last season, along with 3 starters up front.

Big things were expected from OLSH in their first year of play in the Big Seven Conference, but star RB Isaiah Neely was injured at the beginning of the season and the Chargers never recovered. Eight starters return from the team that went 1-8 and averaged just 11.4 points per game.

The Scotties made the playoffs for the first time since 2003 last season, but have the difficult task of rebuilding an offense that lost most of its skill players to graduation. The good news is that Union returns all 5 starters along the offensive and defensive lines.

Black Hills Conference

View A: Black Hills in a larger map

Bout Dat Nation. 63 consecutive wins. Four straight state championships. Five straight WPIAL titles. Even though Clairton graduated the Killer T's, they return a lot of experience up front and are once again loaded with athletes at the skill positions. Until someone beats them, they're the best of the bunch.

The Spartans have made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons and return the best RB in the conference in senior Justin Vickless who ran for 1500 yards as a junior and nearly 1000 as a sophomore. Three linemen return in front of Vickless who will carry the Spartans on his back this season.

The Greyhounds once again have a D1 recruit from the Rawlins family, this time linebacker Justice Rawlins. Monessen returns their second leading rusher and some experience along the lines. The offense carried the team last year and they will need to get more out of their defense, which finished 6th in the conference last season.

Fort Cherry
Last year broke a 6-year run of consecutive playoff appearances for the Rangers. This season, Fort Cherry returns their two leading rushers and their leading passer. They have the talent to make a run at the playoffs if the defense improves after giving up 34 points per game last season.

Bishop Canevin
The Crusaders lost their leading passer, rusher and receiver from last year's playoff team but the biggest departure might be coach Bob Jacoby who retired after 40 seasons. There is enough returning talent on both sides of the ball (5 on offense and 6 on defense, including 2-way players in RB/LB Tyler Reddy and RB/DB Giovanni DeMarzo.

The Bucs have been quietly consistent, reaching the playoffs in 9 of the last 11 seasons. They return QB Kaleb Susko who threw for over 900 yards last year and leading receiver Miles Williamson who averaged almost 15 yards per catch. The Bucs gave Clairton a scare in the season opener last year and must make the trip to the Bears homefield this year.

Before their move to the Black Hills Conference last year, California had made the playoffs in 12 of the previous 13 seasons playing in the weak Tri-County South. The biggest thing the Trojans could win this season might be a return to the Tri-County South when the WPIAL redraws the section lines next spring. For now, California fans will have to suffer through another season of brutally tough competition in the Black Hills Conference.

The Cougars haven't made the playoffs since 2001 but return QB Freddie McKissick and sophomore RB Isiah Canton who led the team in scoring with 7 TDs as a freshman. Ten starters return to a defense that gave up 34.5 points per game last year.

Serra Catholic
There is nowhere to go but up for the Eagles. They had the worst defense in the WPIAL last season, giving up 48.4 points per game last season. They carry an 11-game losing streak into the season, having been outscored 534-97 during that time.

Eastern Conference

View A: Eastern in a larger map

North Catholic
If you thought I wasn't going to be biased and not pick my alma mater to repeat as Eastern Conference Champions, you're crazy. The Trojans are loaded with talent, starting with do-everything junior PJ Fulmore who rushed for over 1800 yards as a sophomore. Ryan Kirby saw time at QB and WR last year and the 6'2" senior figures to be a factor on the outside as junior Adam Sharlow takes over under center. The Trojans return a load of talented players with TE Ronnie Meder and FB/LB Jarred Fragapane who is getting some D1 attention. The Trojans only conference loss came to Northgate in a game where they turned the ball over 5 times. The Trojans made a run to the semi-finals where they fell to Sto-Rox. North Catholic has never been to the Championship game, and they have the team to make another run at Heinz Field this year. Finally, despite the school changing the name to CDDWNCHS, I'm keeping it old school as a proud alumni and calling it North Catholic, because that's what it is, at least while the school is still in the prison-esque building atop Troy Hill.

The Antelopes have made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons with last year being the only one of those five where they failed to win a postseason game. The margin of difference in the Eastern Conference is razor-thin as Avonworth was a 4th and goal from the 2 away from defeating North Catholic last year. The Lopes return their leading passer Zach Chandler who threw for over 1100 yards as a freshman last year and their leading rusher Andrew Broadus. Add in three returning starters on the offensive line and Avonworth should be headed for the playoffs and right in the middle of the conversation for the conference title once again.

The Vikings had an up-and-down season that was punctuated by a 3-game winning streak to end the season that carried them to their first playoff appearance since 2007. The Vikings wide open attack was led by junior QB Jesse Zelonka who racked up over 1400 passing yards, most of them going to sophomore WR Tre Tipton (786 receiving yards, 128 rushing yards, 16 total TDs). If Tipton has another big season, he could start to see some D1 offers headed his way.

The Dynamos lost one of the best rushers in school history in Sean Dugan, but return their entire road-grading offensive line that plowed the way for Dugan's 1700-yard senior season. Springdale has typically been a run-heavy offense and things should not change much this season with the experienced offensive line and inexperienced players at the skill positions. The Dynamos are good enough to compete for a playoff spot once again as they look to extend their 11-year playoff run, the second longest streak in Class A and the 7th longest in the WPIAL (tied with Gateway).

The Flames missed out on the playoffs last season after losing a casket match to Avonworth in the season finale in overtime after leading 18-0 in the third quarter. The Flames were in the catbird's seat after starting conference play 5-0, but they dropped their final 3 decisions to Apollo-Ridge, Springdale and Avonworth. New coach Brandon LeDonne has his work cut out for him in replacing dual-threat QB Cody Walter who led the team in passing and rushing last season. The Flames are good enough to make a case for the playoffs.

West Shamokin
The Wolves broke the WPIAL's longest losing streak (46 games) with a win over Riverview last season and followed it up with a win at Leechburg. West ShamokWIN returns 8 starters on both sides of the ball and could make a run at the playoffs if they can find a way to squeeze out another win or two. The Wolves return their leading passer and top two rushers who both ran for over 700 yards last year.

The Raiders have not been to the playoffs since 2007 but look to make a run this season as they return 6 starters on offense and 8 on defense. Junior QB Tyler Nigro started last season and is being pegged as a dual-threat quarterback that will shoulder the load of the Raiders offense.

Not much went right for the Tigers in the first month of 2012, but once the calendar turned to October things began to change. Wilkinsburg managed 3 wins in October, punctuated by a shocking upset over Avonworth. They return some players from last year's team that was surprisingly good on the defensive side of the ball.

The Blue Devils have been at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the better part of the last decade and will likely find themselves there again. They return their leading rusher from last season, but will need to find replacements for the rest of their skill players. Rumor has it that the school has explored leaving the WPIAL (District 7) for neighboring District 6, but decided to stay in the WPIAL for now.

Tri-County South

View A: Tri-County South in a larger map

With the departure of Monessen to the Black Hills Conference last year, Beth-Center's Tri-County South dominance continued. The Bulldogs have amassed an incredible 35-3 record in Tri-County South play over the last 5 years, winning 3 conference titles. The Bulldogs carry a 10-year playoff streak into 2013 where they should be the class of the Tri-South once again with 1000-yard passer Gino Faieta.

The Commodores were the only Tri-South team to beat Beth-Center last year and return 1800-yard passer Charlie Manack. Manack could finish the season as the top passer in Class A, given the weak defenses of the Tri-South. They also return their leading rusher and should make their third consecutive playoff appearance.

The Mighty Mikes have been a playoff fixture over the last 15 years, making 14 appearances but falling in the first round every time except for 2002 when they made a run to the semi-finals. They return seven starters on offense and nine on defense and should be right in the thick of the Tri-South playoff race once again.

Just a few years removed from having to start a cheerleader and members of the band in order to simply field a team, Avella made a shocking run at a playoff spot last season after starting 5-0. The Eagles look to make the playoffs for the first time since 1976 and have the experienced roster to do so as they return their leading passer, rusher and receiver.

The Rockets returned to the playoffs after a two year drought last season with an explosive offense that averaged 36.9 points per game. Jefferson-Morgan will have to replace their leading passer and leading rusher this season but return some starters along the line and on defense.

West Greene
The Pioneers had been one of the worst teams in all the WPIAL over the last 3 seasons, winning just once from 2008-2011. They broke the mold last season, winning 3 conference games and a non-conference contest with Vincentian. Eight starters on offense and defense return for West Greene this season as they look to improve on their 2012 success.

The Maples will likely find themselves around the bottom of the Tri-South once again this season as they don't have much in terms of experienced players. Tradition is not on their side as they have not made the playoffs since 2005, which was their last winning season.

The Bearcats move from the Black Hills Conference to the Tri-South did not go as well as anticipated and they found themselves at the bottom of the heap once again. The Bearcats must improve on defense after giving up 36 points per game last year.The good news is that Bentworth was able to locate the end zone, improving from 4.7 points per game in 2011 (being shut out 7 times) to 24.4 points per game in 2012 (and only being shut out once).

The Gators were the most disappointing team in the WPIAL last season, not because of high expectations but because they had to forfeit two games due to lack of players. You hate to see a team not be able to take the field, and Geibel enters this season with only 17 players on the roster, which could make for a precarious situation should any injuries occur. Nevertheless, you have to hand it to these 17 kids who are going to give it a go and take the field.

Playoff Predictions:
Big Seven: Sto-Rox, Neshannock, Rochester, Western Beaver
Black Hills: Clairton, Brentwood, Monessen, Fort Cherry
Eastern: North Catholic, Avonworth, Apollo-Ridge, Springdale
Tri-County South: Beth-Center, Frazier, Carmichaels, Avella
Championship: Clairton over North Catholic

Preseason Gameday: Carolina Panthers

Cameron Outdoor Stadium
TV: KDKA or pay to watch online
Radio: WDVE and other affiliates

The Steelers head into the last preseason game with essentially 40 of the 53 roster spots decided. There are about 27 guys competing for the last 13 roster spots. Even though the Steelers have yet to win this preseason, they have avoided suffering any significant injuries to their star players, which is a victory enough.

What To Watch For

1. No Injuries

Usually this is the 5th item on my "What to Watch For" list, but as the preseason winds down, avoiding significant injuries and having a healthy team heading into the regular season becomes even more important. So far, the Steelers have avoided losing any of their key players to injury. The starters won't play much (if at all) against the Panthers, which means we should be able to enter the Week 1 contest against Tennessee with a full complement of starters.

2. Special Teams

Special Teams play has been awful so far this preseason. There has been a fumbled punt, punts fielded inside the 10, a blocked punt, a blocked field goal and a kickoff return for a touchdown. That's not even mentioning special teams penalties. This is where the last few roster spots will be determined and it will be important to keep an eye on not only who makes the tackles but who makes back-breaking mistakes. Lane responsibility, particularly on kick coverage, will be a key for the Steelers after giving up the big return last week.

3. Second String O-line

The much-maligned Offensive Line depth enters the last preseason game with a roster spot or two up in the air. The Steelers typically only dress 7 linemen on gameday, so they could get away with carrying only 7 linemen on the active roster. In that case, John Malecki seems to have the inside track given his versatility on the inside. Guy Whimper was brought in to provide veteran depth on the line but he hasn't been able to block a pop-up on his computer, let alone a defensive lineman. This leaves undrafted free agents Chris Hubbard and Joe Long (who both looked much better against Kansas City) as candidates for the 8th roster spot, should the Steelers choose to keep more than 7 offensive linemen on their 53-man roster.

4. The evolution of Felix Jones

Last week, Felix Jones received a baptism by fire when he was thrown into game action with the Steelers less than a day after arriving via trade. This week, he has had more time to study the playbook and learn the offense. We should see Jones' role expand and he should get a lot of carries in this game. Landry Jones is scheduled to see the majority of the game at quarterbacck, and given the injuries in the backfield, Jones should see significant playing time as well, especially on 3rd down. Jones' roster spot is not guarantees, but he could play his way into the team with a stellar performance this week.

5. Linebackers

The Steelers could keep as many as 11 linebackers on their 53-man roster. As things sit right now, five men have their spots locked down. On the outside, LaMarr Woodley, Jarvis Jones and Jason Worlids are roster locks as well as starters Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons on the inside. Behind them, there is a cluster of rookie linebackers that have all jumped off the screen when given the opportunity. Stevenson Sylvester was already cut in the first round of releases, paving the way for the young linebackers to step up on the depth chart. Chris Carter has not developed the way the Steelers had hoped on the outside and Alan Baxter seems poised to surpass him. Kion Wilson and Marshall McFadden have seen significant time on special teams while rookie Vince Williams always seems to be around the ball. Brian Rolle and Terrence Garvin are no slouches either. Rolle has great range and Garvin has bounced baack and forth between outside and inside linebacker though he looks better on the inside. The Steelers could keep all of these guys, but given the amount of capable depth they have, it seems that some incredibly difficult decisions loom on the other side of the Carolina game.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Kool-Aid Man: Steelers Lose


Andy Reid's bizarre clock management skills are in mid-season form. That's about all there is to say. Playing for overtime in a preseason game is ridiculous.

Defense gets the nod for introductions. The smoke is cool, running out the anthem singer not so much. Unless it's Styx. They should get the grand treatment.

The Steelers win the toss for the third time this preseason. This time they deferred.

It seemed like the right move when the Chiefs fumbled the opening kickoff but replay overturned the fumble and showed the runner's elbow was down.

The first team defense does its thing and forces a coverage sack when Troy jumps a shallow cross on 3rd down.

The Steelers come out with Beachum checking in as an eligible receiver in the tight end spot to add some beef up front. Given the lack of a blocking tight end, this was a fantastic move. They even ran some play-action off the heavy set with Ben airing one out for AB down the sideline who makes a great over-the-shoulder catch. The offense stalls out when Ben misses AB on an out-route on 3rd down inside the 10. Suisham gets us on the board.


After Timmons and Troy stack up Charles on 3rd and 1, Reid makes the bizarre decision to go for it on 4th and 1 from his own 20. Troy slices in and Jarvis and Ziggy stop Charles in the backfield to set up shop for the offense.

Ben hits Cotchery to get us inside the 10, but then gets sacked on a blitz up the middle to set things back. On 3rd down, Ben does his Ben thing and eludes pressure, finding Dwyer wide open inside the 5. Ben takes a hit but delivers the ball and Dwyer scampers in for the score.


The defense dominates again and the offense takes it out across midfield as the quarter ends.

Second Quarter

Ben seemingly hits a big pass to Brown but it gets called back on a chop block on Dwyer that effectively ends the drive.

Bowe gets the Chiefs out of trouble and out to midfield by breaking a few tackles in the secondary. The bigger story is that Ziggy ran him down. The defense locks it up after that.

Ben goes to work hitting Cotchery and Brown for big gains to get us into Chiefs territory then almost connects for another touchdown when he throws a perfect ball to Sanders down the right sideline that Sanders juggles as he slides across the goal line and out of bounds.


Ball on the ground. Man.

Suisham comes out to attempt a 52-yarder but it gets blocked. Another special teams disaster.

The block turns things around for the Chiefs. Alex Smith avoids a sack and with all the receivers running fly routes there are no defenders at the second level and he is able to scramble for 30 yards. Another 15 gets tacked onto the end when Cortez Allen gets pushed into Smith out of bounds and flagged for a late hit. Whatever. The defense holds the Chiefs to 3.


Ben starts moving the ball again but gets sacked on an overload blitz where two came free and only Dwyer was in the backfield to block. Moorman makes a horrendous punt to give the Chiefs decent field position with a minute left.

Smith goes to work in the no huddle, picking his way down the field, getting some free yards on a roughing the passer call when Troy absolutely obliterates him when he was scrambling outside the pocket. Upon review, it was the right call, Troy hit Smith in the head. The Chiefs convert a 3rd down inside the 10 with under 30 seconds to go and Smith comes back after a spike and hits Ernest Hemingway on a hill for the score.



Bizarre first half. Steelers dominated the game but two defensive penalties gave the Chiefs free yardage on their scoring drives.

Third Quarter

Felix Jones and Bruce Gradkowski pretty much ran the show in the second half. They got off to a slow start behind the first team line when Gradkowski got sacked trying to scramble away from pressure on 3rd down.

Chase Daniel came in at QB for the Chiefs. Noted fumbler Knile Davis did just that on 3rd down. Troy with the big recovery.

The Felix Jones show keeps on rolling and carried us across midfield but a holding call on Pouncey effectively ended things. Nothing really happening as the teams traded punts.

Gradkowski is finally allowed to open things up on 3rd and long after a penalty on Beachum and hits Michael Palmer down the seam. Palmer has been the best blocking TE in the preseason and has made some tackles on special teams. He's making a case for a roster spot. After Baron Batch works it to 3rd and 1, Bruce goes play-action and hits Wheaton running a beautiful route down the seam that he turns into a post for the pylon and splits the corner and safety while making an over-the-shoulder grab at the goal line.


The good feelings would be short-lived as Knile Davis atoned for his earlier fumble by taking the ensuing kickoff 109 yards back to the house. Bad containment by the second string kick coverage guys. Also, Davis runs like a 4.2 40-yard dash, so he has insane speed when he holds on to the ball.


Derek Moye makes a slick little move on 3rd down to evade some tacklers and pick up a first down, atoning the offensive line for giving up a sack on 2nd down.

Fourth Quarter

Gradkowski keeps working it to Wheaton, moving us into field goal range. A 3rd down penalty on the Chiefs gives the offense new life in the red zone, but they can't threaten the end zone. Suisham puts us back ahead.


From here, things began to get a little crazy. Steeler Nation got put on edge after Jarvis Jones intercepted a tipped ball then stayed down on the field after being tackled from behind. The interception was overturned on a pass interference call, but more importantly was Jones' injury. He was taken to the hospital after the game but all the tests came up negative and it looks like it was only a bruised chest after he fell on the ball. Daniel led the Chiefs down into scoring territory but Andy Reid opted to go for it on 4th and 2 from the 31 rather than attempt a 49-yard field goal with 7 minutes left. Shamarknado came up with a big break-up to turn the ball back to the Steelers.

The Chiefs get a gift from the defense with a 15-yard penalty on Baxter for a late hit on a shaky call because the player had stepped out and the ref never blew the whistle. The Chiefs only face one third down as they work their way down the field and get all the way down to the 10 with under 2 minutes to play. Baxter atones for his penalty by coming up with a big sack on second down. Andy Reid strikes again with a minute and a half to go. Rather than going for it on 4th and long, he opts to kick the field goal and tie the game, risking overtime. 


The teams trade absolutely awful possessions. Gradkowski throws two incompletions and a check-down and Daniel is sacked 3 times. Tomlin made a bizarre move and used his timeouts after the sacks to give the KC offense more time. In a regular season game, that would be asinine, but it almost paid off with a Baxter strip-sack on 2nd down but the Chiefs were able to recover.


The Chiefs won the toss. You pretty much knew it was over when Vince Williams got called for a horse collar tackle, essentially putting the Chiefs at the edge of field goal range. The Steelers had a chance to get out of hot water on a 3rd and long but let Daniel get loose and move the chains. Rather than kicking a field goal and letting the Steelers have the ball, Andy Reid opted to go for it on 4th and 1 from the 20. The Chiefs converted and scored the winning touchdown three plays later. That was all she wrote.


Bizarre clock management from the Kool Aid Man.

Players of the Game

Offensive Game Ball: Ben Roethlisberger
Defensive Game Ball: Troy Polamalu

Honorable Mentions:
Jonathan Dwyer
Ziggy Hood
Alan Baxter
Antonio Brown
Markus Wheaton
Derek Moye
Vince Williams
Shamarko Thomas
Kelvin Beachum

Mr. Yuck Sticker of the Game

Defensive Penalties

Saying "overtime in a preseason game" is too obvious a choice here. In all of the Chiefs scoring drives (except for the kickoff return) they were aided by a personal foul penalty against the Steelers that either gave them 15 free yards or half the distance to the goal. The Steelers didn't give up any points on drives without a defensive penalty. In a non-scoring drive, a defensive pass interference call wiped out Jarvis Jones' interception (though it's unlikely the interception would've happened without Victorian lunging through the receiver to tip the ball into the air). Nevertheless, penalties crushed the defense all game and they need to stop committing senseless personal fouls as we move into the regular season.

Final Thoughts

  • Jarvis Jones wasn't seriously injured. That's 3 preseason games with no significant injuries. That is significant for a team that doesn't have much depth.
  • Speaking of Jones, he's always around the ball. He's going to take over as the full-time starter by mid-season.
  • Troy looks like Troy.
  • Even though Sanders dropped it, what a pass by Ben down the sideline. Holy crap.
  • Loved the heavy set with Beachum playing as a tight end. I've been beating that drum on Twitter since Spaeth was injured.
  • Not sure how much to read into it, but every year in the last decade that the Steelers did not have a winning record in the preseason they had a .500 or below record in the regular season. Let's hope that 2013 breaks the trend.
  • The first cuts happened. See here.
  • Big week with Carolina and the second round of cuts.
  • High school football starts this week. Keep an eye on my WPIAL tag for previews and analysis.
  • The only thing that matters between now and Tennessee is that no one gets injured or arrested.

WPIAL AA Preview

The High School football season kicks off on Friday. In keeping with annual tradition, we're going to look at each classification of the WPIAL. The elite AA teams figure to be the cream of the crop again this season as most of the powerhouses return star players. Two-time defending champion Aliquippa is absolutely loaded with D1 talent, led by the two-headed monster rushing attack of Dravon Henry and Terry Swanson. Washington RB Shai McKenzie looks to take aim at Rushel Shell's single-season rushing record. South Fayette returns Brett Brumbaugh, the last of the trio of quarterbacks from the Brumbaugh family, who carried the Lions to the semi-finals last year. Teams are listed by my predicted order of finish. Don't forget to check out the WPIAL Standings page, which I will be updating throughout the season.

All helmet images from PA Helmet Project.

Allegheny Conference

View AA: Allegheny in a larger map

Shady Side Academy
The Indians should reach the playoffs for the 7th consecutive season and are tabbed as the favorites in the Allegheny Conference. Pitt commit Dennis Briggs returns after leading the team in receiving and finishing 3rd in rushing last season. Leading rusher Jarred Brevard also returns, but the Indians will need to find a quarterback.

The Vikings move from AAA to AA proved beneficial, as they reached the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and broke a 22-game losing streak. Valley returns leading rusher Demetrious Houser who ran for almost 1200 yards last season. There will be stability in the backfield as QB Ty Matthews also returns.

The Bucs graduated one of the best running backs in school history in Cole Bush who had 1800 yards last year. Burrell also lost a 1000-yard passer to graduation. Cody Wolfe figures to take over under center and will return leading receiver Nicholas Pattock.

The Yellow Jackets won the Conference last season but will have to replace Brendan Lynch who led the team in rushing and passing. The Jackets streak of 5 consecutive playoff appearances may be in jeopardy this season as they return only 2 players from last year's team. This will be a rebuilding year as the team has only 8 seniors so there will be some struggles but a strong foundation for 2014 will be built.

Ford City
The Sabers dominated the Allegheny Conference for the better part of the mid-2000s, but have fallen on harder times recently with a 4th place finish in 2011 and missing the playoffs last year. The Sabers Wing-T running game has dominated teams in the past, but they graduated their entire starting backfield from last season.

East Allegheny
The Wildcats were a perennial playoff contender in the Interstate Conference, but the move to the defensively tough Allegheny did not prove fortuitous. After making the playoffs 4 of the previous 5 seasons, East A finished just 1-8 last season. QB Kyle Whipple threw for 1300 yards last season and returns for his senior year. The Wildcats will have to improve on defense after giving up 34 points per game last season.

Like Valley, the Wildcats benefited from the move from AAA to AA last season. They have only made the playoffs twice since 2004, but finished just one game shy last season. Kittanning lost all of their skill position players to graduation, so they will need to find solutions from their young players.

Deer Lakes
The Lancers made the playoffs for the first time in school history in 2010 but returned to mediocrity in the two years since. QB Josh Plocki returns for his senior season, which could be a long one for a team that broke 20 points only twice last season.

Summit Academy
The Knights have never made the playoffs and see a full roster turnover every year, making their success difficult to project. Summit Academy is a school for adjudicated youth, and there have been talented players to strap on the helmet in the past.

Century Conference

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South Fayette
The Lions have dominated the Century Conference over the last 4 seasons, reaching at least the quarterfinals each season with a trip to the semi-finals last year and a WPIAL championship in 2010. Junior Brett Brumbaugh is the last of the three Brumbaugh brothers and has been starting since his freshman year. He threw for 2800 yards and 37 TDs last season. He loses his leading receiver but returns his top rusher (Grant Fetchet who had almost 1000 yards) and second and third receivers Justin Watson (who is getting some D1 offers) and Conner Beck. The Lions were second in all of WPIAL in offense last season and first in defense, allowing only 24 points during the regular season, posting 6 shutouts.

Seton-La Salle
The Rebels will need to find a replacement for Luke Brumbaugh (the middle Brumbaugh brother) at quarterback this season. The good news is that four of their top five rushers return, including Tom Rizza who ran for a team-leading 550 and added another 200 receiving. The Rebels also return 9 starters from a defense that dominated everyone not named South Fayette last season. Seton-La Salle was the last team to allow a point in 2012 after posting shutouts the first 3 weeks. The 51 points allowed to South Fayette made the Lions the only team to reach double-digits against the Rebels in the regular season.

The Highlanders had an up-and-down season last year that featured a win over a playoff team (Steel Valley) but losses to two teams that finished below them (Quaker Valley and South Park). If McGuffey had won one of those two games, they would have gone to the playoffs. This year they return 9 offensive starters including QB Nate Whipkey, RB James Duchi, TE Ryan Steinstraw and WR Adam Narigon, all of whom are juniors. The Highlanders also added RB Patrick Frey who transferred from Trinity after rushing for almost 1000 yards last year.

Steel Valley
The Ironmen have had the unfortunate luck of facing Aliquippa in the first round of the playoffs the last two seasons. Steel Valley has reached the postseason in 4 consecutive seasons and should make it back this year as they return leading rusher D'Andre Pickens and leading receiver Derek Taylor. There is returning experience on the lines and the Ironmen should be good enough to reach the postseason for the 5th straight year.

Quaker Valley
The Quakers return all of their starters from the offensive and defensive lines but will have to find some answers at the skill positions, including at quarterback. Junior Dane Jackson led the team in rushing last year and could take the helm as a dual-threat quarterback.

South Park
The Eagles struggled to find the end zone last season, averaging only 14.7 points per game. South Park lost a 1000-yard rusher to graduation but return both of their quarterbacks that saw playing time last season. The offense is the biggest issue after they broke double digits only 5 times last season. The good news is that the defense was not terrible and the Eagles were 3-2 when they scored in double digits.

South Allegheny
The Gladiators were the shock of the 2012 season, posting a 7-2 record and reaching the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. Most of their skill position players have graduated, including their leading passer and leading rusher. However, the Gladiators return experience up front with 9 players returning along the offensive and defensive lines.

Keystone Oaks
The Golden Eagles missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season after a run of 5 straight playoff appearances in the mid-2000s. 1000-yard passer Kobe Phillippi returns for his junior season along with RB Jimmy Canello who was second on the team in receptions and rushing yards last season. The Eagles should be better than last year but it will be a difficult push for the playoffs.

The Blue Devils have lost 12 straight games and have not tasted victory since 2011 when they beat Quaker Valley. The Blue Devils are still a young team with only a handful of seniors on the roster. They had the worst offense in all of WPIAL last season, scoring only 47 points in 9 games. They gave up over 40 points in 7 games and only came within 20 points of an opponent once. A lot of improvement is needed this season for the Blue Devils to climb out of the basement.

Interstate Conference

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The Little Prexies made a run to the Championship Game last season before falling to Aliquippa. Many saw this as a surprise, but I'll take a moment to pat myself on the back since I called the Quips over the Prexies in my AA Season Preview last year. RB Shai McKenzie is one of the top D1 recruits in the WPIAL after running for almost 2700 yards last season. The Prexies had the 3rd best offense and 3rd best defense in AA last season, but will have to replace most of their starting units. If McKenzie can duplicate his 2012 season, he may have a chance at Rushel Shell's single-season rushing record of 2740.

Mt Pleasant
The Vikings return their leading rusher and passer from the team that reached the quarterfinals last year. Tyler Mellors rushed for almost 1500 yards and a school record 25 TDs last year as a junior. Dual-threat QB Ryan Gumbita had over 1000 yards of total offense. The Vikings had the 4th best offense in AA last season and bring back numerous starters on offense and defense that should put them right in the mix again this season.

The Centurions have reached the playoffs each of the last 10 seasons and last year marked only the 4th time in that span they exited in the first round. Dual-threat QB Chase Keller returns for his senior season after posting over 1900 yards of total offense last season. GCC opens the season with road trips to Washington and Mt Pleasant that will provide a litmus test for their standing in the conference.

The 2013 Jayhawks are a case of reputation outweighing experience. Jeanette has missed the playoffs only once in the last 15 seasons and has at least been to the semi-finals in 5 of the last 7. While they don't have much in terms of returning players, there is plenty of talent on this roster and with only a handful of seniors they are primed to build the experience this season to make a run at the WPIAL title in 2014.

In no other conference is there a greater divide between the top and the bottom teams. Yough dominated the 4 teams below them by an average margin of victory of 28 points. However, they were defeated by the top four teams by an average of 26.5 points. Dual-threat QB Tyler Donahue threw for over 1200 yards and accounted for over 1500 yards of total offense last year as a junior. A handful of other starters return for the team that should be right in the middle of the conference once again but will have to pull an upset over one of the big four in order to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008.

After an 0-4 start to 2012, the Scotties won 3 of their last 5 games. They graduated only 10 seniors which means the 2013 team will be more experienced than previous teams that were fielded. The Scotties will have some sophomore and junior contributors again this season and they are trending in the right direction but will still be in the bottom half of the league.

The Raiders were one of the best programs in AA back around the turn of the century but they have fallen on hard times and have not reached the playoffs since 2003. They used 2 quarterbacks last season, both of which return this year for coach Russ Moore who was brought back to the program last year. Moore's resume includes coaching Waynesburg's WPIAL championship team of 1999.

The Cougars have only made the playoffs once in the last decade and it will be an uphill struggle again this season. They return their leading passer and leading rusher from the team that went 2-7 last season. The Cougars biggest issue last season was defense, giving up almost 40 points per game and finishing with the 4th worst defense in AA.

The Falcons were winless last season and carry a 9-game losing streak into this year. They had the second worst offense in all the WPIAL and the second worst defense in AA. Brownsville once again is a team short on seniors but with a lot of young players that will see the field.

Midwestern Conference

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What can be said about this year's Quips team that hasn't already been said? The question is not whether they will win the Midwestern Conference, but whether or not they will even allow a point while doing so. They allowed just 36 points in the regular season last year and Ellwood City (who scored two touchdowns in garbage time) was the only WPIAL team to score more than 7 points against Aliquippa during the Quips run to the State Championship Game. This team is loaded with D1 recruits including RB/DB Dravon Henry, RB/DB Terry Swanson and OL/DL Jaleel Fields. Swanson and Henry formed the most dynamic rushing attack in AA last season, combining for an absurd 3465 yards and 52, yes 52, touchdowns. The Quips scored a WPIAL-leading 470 points (52.2 points per game) last season and were only held under 35 points in the State Championship Game. The Quips haven't lost to a WPIAL team since the 2010 WPIAL Championship (26 game WPIAL winning streak) and haven't lost to a conference opponent since September 2009 (29 game conference winning streak).

Beaver Falls
The Tigers reached the quarterfinals last season before losing to South Fayette and enter 2013 looking for revenge on rival Aliquippa for the 66-7 shellacking that was laid on them on ROOT Sports last year. The Tigers have the D1 talent to make some noise this season. WR Elijah Cottrill is a 2-sport athlete with a football offer from Akron and a basketball offer from Creighton. TE/LB Sage Curry has committed to West Virginia and DL Brock Boxen has committed to Akron. 1400-yard passer Dan Stratton and 1100-yard rusher Damian Rawl return to an offense that scored at least 28 points in all but one outing.

The Bobcats started 2012 on an 8-0 run but fell to Aliquippa in the season finale then lost again to Jeanette in the quarterfinals two weeks later. The Bobcats have made the playoffs six consecutive years but will have to replace most of their offensive skill position players. They are good enough to make the playoffs again, but clearly not at the level of Aliquippa and Beaver Falls.

New Brighton
The Lions were right on the cusp of the playoffs last season. After opening the season with a 3-point win over Ellwood City, they went on to lose their next 6, including 3-point losses to Beaver Falls and Freedom that ultimately doomed their playoff chances. They closed out 2012 strong with identical 35-28 victories over Mohawk and Riverside. There is some hope for continued success this season as QB Gabe Greco returns after throwing for almost 1200 yards last season.

For years, Mohawk and Freedom had been bottom-feeders in the Midwestern Conference. Both broke out of the mold last season and Mohawk could have earned a playoff spot had they defeated New Brighton in the season finale. The Warriors return leading passer Gio Menachino and leading rusher Shane McFarland from last year's team that had the 4th worst offense in AA but still almost made the playoffs.

Ellwood City
After two consecutive trips to the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, the Wolverines fell flat in 2012, finishing next-to-last in the conference. The only bright spot in their season was a win over rival Riverside in the season finale. Leading rusher Jared Myers returns after rushing for over 1000 yards last year. Ellwood City actually had the 4th best offense in the conference, averaging 23.6 points per game. The problem was on defense where they surrendered 36.8 points per contest, 5th worst in AA.

The Panthers have not made the playoffs since 2007 when they made a run to the semi-finals and hit rock bottom in 2012, finishing at the bottom of the conference and finishing with the second worst defense in all the WPIAL. A handful of starters return for the team whose only bright spot was a 27-0 win over Mohawk.

The Bulldogs broke out of their bottom-feeder role last season and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Freedom will have to rely on a new set of offensive skill players this season as their leading rusher transferred to Beaver Falls and the rest of their star players from last season graduated. It could be another long season for the Bulldogs.

Playoff Predictions:
Allegheny Conference: SSA, Valley, Burrell, Freeport
Century Conference: South Fayette, Seton-La Salle, McGuffey, Steel Valley
Interstate Conference: Washington, Mt Pleasant, GCC, Jeanette
Midwestern Conference: Aliquippa, Beaver Falls, Beaver, New Brighton
Championship: Aliquippa over South Fayette

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Preseason Week 4 Roster Battles

The Steelers head into their last preseason game against Carolina with most of their final roster determined. Last week's cut from 90 to 75 claimed veteran players like Baron Batch and Stevenson Sylvester. This was a reflection of how the Steelers view their young linebackers and the addition of Felix Jones to the backfield made Batch expendable. Heading into the Carolina game 36 roster spots are essentially locked, barring injury.

QB - Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones
RB - Le'Veon Bell, Isaac Redman
FB - Will Johnson
WR - Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton
TE - Matt Spaeth/Heath Miller*, David Paulson
OT - Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum
OG - David DeCastro, Ramon Foster
C - Maurkice Pouncey

DE - Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward
NT - Steve McLendon, Al Woods
OLB - LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worlids, Jarvis Jones
ILB - Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons
CB - Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay
S - Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Shamarko Thomas

K - Shaun Suisham
LS - Greg Warren

I'm being a little conservative in my estimates here, but this leaves 17 rosters spots to still be decided. The one wrench that could be thrown in the mix is at Tight End. Matt Spaeth will be out until mid-season and is a likely candidate for the IR-Designated for Return list. Heath Miller is still on the PUP list and his reactivation would take up Spaeth's roster spot. I kept one of them on my list of guarantees, but it's possible that the Steelers will hold out Heath on the PUP list for a few weeks which would enable them to keep an extra player somewhere else.

Running Back: Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling
Dwyer has looked starter-capable in the last two preseason games where he has seen significant action. Dwyer might be the Week 1 starter if Bell and Redman are still injured. Jones is being given a chance to make the roster, which he might do given Stephens-Howling's injury. LSH is injured which is the only reason he's on the roster bubble right now.

Wide Receiver: Derek Moye, Justin Brown, Reggie Dunn
With the first 4 receiver spots locked down, three guys head into the finale looking to make a splash. Moye has looked the best with the ball in his hands and both he and Brown are over 6'4" and would give the Steelers a tall receiving option. Dunn has been the primary kick returner in the preseason and could win his way onto the roster with an explosive special teams performance against Carolina. Moye seems to have the inside track as of right now, but Brown hasn't seen many balls thrown his way since the preseason opener so it is hard to gauge where he is in his development.

Tight End: David Johnson, Michael Palmer, Jamie McCoy
Johnson looked good in his first game-action since tearing his ACL last year. Michael Palmer adds a veteran presence to the group and has been the best blocking tight end all preseason. As an added bonus, he had two big tackles on special teams against the Redskins that prevented big returns. Jamie McCoy is a young prospect who has flashed some athleticism. As things stand right now, it seems likely that Johnson will make the team, Palmer is right on the fringe depending on Heath's health and McCoy will find his way onto the practice squad.

Offensive Line: John Malecki, Guy Whimper, Joe Long, Chris Hubbard
The battle for the 7th and 8th spots on the offensive line depth chart has been ongoing for most of the preseason. John Malecki's position versatility on the inside seems to give him the inside track for the 7th spot. Veteran Guy Whimper was added to the roster but has looked bad playing guard on the second team line. Rookie Joe Long was elevated to second team tackle against the Chiefs and looked better than veteran D'Anthony Batiste (who was released this week). Rookie Chris Hubbard also played well against the Chiefs and could find his way onto the practice squad or even the active roster if he shows the versatility to play both guard and tackle.

Defensive Line: Hebron Fangupo, Alameda Ta'amu, Brian Arnfelt
Al Woods has played himself onto the roster. If the Steelers keep 6 defensive linemen, the 6th will likely be either Alameda Ta'amu or Hebron Fangupo. Rookie DE Brian Arnfelt has accumulated 6 tackles in the preseason and flashed against the lesser competition in the second half. He is certainly a candidate for the practice squad but it seems like an outside chance that he makes the roster.

Outside Linebacker: Chris Carter, Alan Baxter
The trade of Adrian Robinson takes some of the drama out of the outside linebacker race. Chris Carter seems to have his spot as the 4th OLB locked down though he is feeling the heat from rookie Alan Baxter. Carter has played special teams throughout his career and gives value to the team. Baxter has 6 tackles and 2 sacks in the preseason and is making a case for himself. If he isn't on the active roster, Baxter will definitely be on the practice squad.

Inside Linebacker: Marshall McFadden, Vince Williams, Kion Wilson, Brian Rolle, Terrence Garvin
With the release of Stevenson Sylvester, the competition for backup inside linebacker is wide open. The Steelers could keep as many as 7 inside linebackers. Marshall McFadden has made a name for himself in the preseason and rookie 6th rounder Vince Williams has been elevated to the second team on the depth chart. Kion Wilson has played on all five special teams units and Brian Rolle has been all over the field. Terrence Garvin has played both inside and outside linebacker, though he has looked better on the inside. All 5 of these guys could find their way to the 53-man roster. The final decisions will likely come down to special teams play this week.

Cornerback: Curtis Brown, Terry Hawthorne, Isaiah Green, Josh Victorian
Brown essentially has the #4 corner spot locked down, especially given his abilities on special teams. Hawthorne was the Steelers 5th round pick this year and is working his way back from injury. Green has seen significant time during the preseason due to injuries to other corners and looked solid. Victorian is a guy the Steelers seem to like but has looked bad this preseason and was a liability on the field last year. The Steelers will likely only keep 4 or 5 corners and it's hard to see them parting ways with Hawthorne who they invested a 5th round pick in.

Safety: Robert Golden, Damon Cromartie-Smith
Golden made the team last year and saw time during the end of the season. Cromartie-Smith has been hovering on the practice squad the last few seasons and is in his do-or-die year with no practice squad eligibility remaining. Both have looked decent on defense but have also made mistakes on special teams. If the Steelers keep 5 safeties, both will make the team, but if they only keep 4 then one of them will be looking for work.

Punter: Drew Butler, Brian Moorman
Butler has the bigger leg and seems to have clearly out-performed the veteran Moorman in game action up to this point. Butler is averaging a full 7 yards more per kick than Moorman (47.5 to 40.5) and Moorman has gotten the benefit of some good bounces. Butler should win this job, even though Moorman kicked with the first team against the Chiefs.

Heading into the final preseason game, there are some close roster battles and I've just detailed 31 guys who are fighting over 17 spots. The final few decisions on the 53-man roster will be difficult, especially if it involves one of the eight rookie linebackers. Here's my best guess on how the roster will shake out ("bubble" players in yellow). I'm predicting that Heath Miller will be activated from the PUP list this week and that Matt Spaeth will be placed on the IR-Designated for Return list (where he would not count against the active roster).

QB - Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones
RB - Le'Veon Bell, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling
FB - Will Johnson
WR - Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton, Derek Moye
TE - Heath Miller, David Paulson, David Johnson, Michael Palmer
OT - Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum
OG - David DeCastro, Ramon Foster
C - Maurkice Pouncey, John Malecki

DE - Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward
NT - Steve McLendon, Al Woods
OLB - LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worlids, Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter, Alan Baxter
ILB - Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, Marshall McFadden, Vince Williams, Kion Wilson, Brian Rolle
CB - Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Curtis Brown, Terry Hawthorne
S - Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden\

K - Shaun Suisham
P - Drew Butler
LS - Greg Warren

Practice Squad: Terrence Garvin, Isaiah Green, Alameda Ta'amu, Brian Arnfelt, Jamie McCoy, Justin Brown, Chris Hubbard, Joe Long


The High School football season kicks off on Friday. In keeping with annual tradition, we're going to look at each classification of the WPIAL. Today's preview features a loaded AAA field. Defending champion West Allegheny returns a full stable of running backs that carried the team to their second title in four years. Perennial powerhouse Thomas Jefferson as well as last year's runner-up West Mifflin will be in the mix once again and the always brutal Parkway Conference has eight playoff-caliber teams. Teams are listed by my predicted order of finish. Don't forget to check out the WPIAL Standings page, which I will be updating throughout the season.

All helmet images from PA Helmet Project.

Big Nine

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Thomas Jefferson
Graduating a 2400-yard passer and a 1000-yard receiver is never easy, but TJ will be loaded once again this season. Chase Winovich has committed to Michigan as a linebacker but is projected to see time at quarterback this season. Leading rusher Jake Farrell returns. At the end of the day, you can't bet against TJ's consistency - they have been to the semifinals in 14 of the last 15 seasons and have won 9 conference titles in the last 11 years.

West Mifflin
The Titans burst into the AAA elite last season, riding 2200-yard rusher Jimmy Wheeler to the Championship Game. Wheeler returns for his senior season and the speedster should dominate the conference once again this season. The real question mark for West Mifflin lies in the rest of the team. Only three other starters return on offense and the Titans will have to rebuild the offensive line in front of Wheeler.

Elizabeth Forward
The Warriors rode a stout defense (6th best in AAA) to the playoffs for the first time since 2005 last year. Seven starters return from that defense and dual-threat QB JaQuan Davidson returns for his senior season as well. Davidson led the team in rushing with over 1000 yards and gets his leading receiver Matt Bernadowski back as well. With the talent Elizabeth Forward has on defense (losses to Trinity and TJ by 7 and 2 points) they could easily sneak their way into the conference title race.

Belle Vernon
The Leopards have made the playoffs in 6 of the last 7 years, including the last 4 in a row. However they have not advanced past the first round since 2000. There is reason for optimism this season with QB Travis Snyder and RB Anthony Levis both returning. Both started as sophomores last year with Snyder throwing for 700 yards and 8 TDs and Levis rushing for 1100 yards and 6 TDs. The biggest problem for the Leopards last year was their defense, which gave up 50 more points than the offense scored.

The Rams return dual-threat quarterback Nico Law who had almost 1000 yards of total offense last year as a sophomore. The Rams have made the playoffs in 6 of the last 7 years, but advanced to the second round only once. Despite graduating their leading rusher and leading receiver, they should be right in the thick of the playoff race in the Big Nine.

The Hillers have made the playoffs in 6 of the 7 years since they dropped down to AAA. However, they have only advanced past the first round of the playoffs once (2007). Their senior-laden team carried them to a 3rd place finish in the Big Nine last year, and they will have to replace pretty much their entire starting lineup.

For a time, Uniontown held the designation as the only team from the now-defunct Keystone Conference to win a WPIAL playoff game. The Red Raiders return starters at the offensive skill positions, and they will be better than Laurel Highlands and Albert Gallatin. Whether or not they have enough talent to break out of their 3-year playoff drought remains to be seen.

Laurel Highlands
After making the playoffs for 4 consecutive seasons from 2006-09, the Mustangs have made the postseason only once in the last 3 years. Laurel Highlands holds the distinction as the last team to lose to Albert Gallatin (in October 2010). The Mustangs return a handful of starters from a team that went 1-8 last year and had the second worst defense in AAA.

Albert Gallatin
With West Shamokin's win last season, the longest losing streak in the WPIAL resides south of Uniontown with Albert Gallatin. The Colonials haven't tasted victory since October 2010 and carry an 18-game losing streak into this season and have only one once in their last 29 outings. Albert Gallatin has to be better on both sides of the ball, finishing with the worst offense and 3rd worst defense in AAA last season.

Greater Allegheny

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The Fighting Planets emerged as conference champions from the quagmire of teams atop the Greater Allegheny last season and reached the quarterfinals before falling to West Mifflin. Josh Schultheis led the team with almost 1700 rushing yards as a sophomore. Senior QB Owen Nearhoof enters his third year as the starter to lead an offense that finished 3rd in AAA last season. The Fighting Planets were dominant on defense as well, finishing 2nd in AAA allowing only 74 points during the regular season.

Franklin Regional
The Panthers must replace most of their starters from a team that finished in a 3-way tie for second in the Greater Allegheny and had the top defense in AAA. They will get an early litmus test with a trip to Mars to open the season. Many are projecting the Panthers as one of the top teams in AAA, but they lost a lot of starters to graduation last season, including their quarterback and leading rushers.

The Rams missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker last season and return most of their team as they look to get back to the postseason. The Rams started a lot of young players last year and got blown out of the water in their first 4 outings, but the team came together and won 4 of their last 5. QB Blake Leri and RB Elijah Jackson started as a sophomores last year and leading receiver TE Allan Cratsenberg returns for his senior season.

The Talbots have only made the playoffs twice in the last 6 seasons, and should have enough talent to make a return trip this season. Their leading passers and leading rushers are gone, but their top two receivers return, and Hampton has enough talent to compete for a playoff spot.

The Knights have built a solid program that doesn't get enough attention due to their geographic isolation in southern Butler county. Knoch has made the playoffs 4 consecutive seasons and had the 4th best defense in AAA last season. The Knights play an old-school brand of run-the-ball-and-play-defense football and they will need their defense to be outstanding again this season as they lost most of their offensive skill players.

The Little Indians finished in a 3-way tie for 5th last season and return their starting quarterback and boast a Temple recruit in Darrious Carter, who excels on defense but had 400 yards receiving last year. Indiana's once-potent offense struggled to find the end zone last season, but with a year of starting experience under his belt, QB Sean Thompson should take a step forward this season. Look for Indiana to compete for a playoff spot once again.

Greensburg Salem
The Lions slogged through most of their season, but it was highlighted by a surprising upset of Hampton. QB Daniel Walters accounted for over 800 yards of total offense as a freshman last season. This is a program that is building towards the future and if they can pull another upset this season could have an outside shot at the playoffs.

The Golden Tigers lost their last 4 games in 2012 but rode their Week 1 win over Highlands through the tiebreakers to earn the last playoff spot from the Greater Allegheny Conference. Most of last year's team graduated and Hollidaysburg brought in a new coach this season.

Derry Area
The Trojans return starters at the offensive skill positions from a team that finished dead last in the Greater Allegheny Conference last season and rung up their only win over Albert Gallatin. Aside from their 8-point loss to Greensburg Salem, the Trojans didn't come within 20 points of a conference opponent last year. They will need to shore up a defense that gave up over 40 points 7 times last season.


View AAA: Parkway in a larger map

West Allegheny
The defending AAA Champions crept under the radar last season, relying on a dominating defense to carry them to the WPIAL crown. In the playoffs, West A held the 1st, 2nd and 5th ranked offenses in AAA to 7, 8 and 0 points (Montour's only points were on a safety). West A is loaded again this season, with QB Andrew Koester returning for his junior season along with the top three running backs. Juniors Chayse Dillon and Armand Dellovade had 952 and 778 yards respectively while sophomore Tory Delmonico added another 726. Expect the Indians right back at the top of the Parkway again this season.

Central Valley
In the three years since the merger of Center and Monaca high schools, Central Valley has been to the semi-finals each season and won the championship in 2010. All-around all-star Robert Foster graduated and is now at Alabama, but the Warriors still have plenty of talent to compete in a loaded Parkway Conference. QB Nate Climo returns for his senior season after passing for 1000 yards in an injury-plagued junior season. Jordan Whitehead led the team with over 900 yards rushing as a sophomore last season. The Warriors should have a more balanced attack this season as they won't be trying to force the ball into Robert Foster's hands every play.

After an 8-year playoff drought around the turn of the century, Montour has been one of the most dominant teams in AAA in the last 6 seasons. The Spartans have made the playoffs 6 consecutive years, made 3 trips to Heinz Field and brought home one title. The Spartans lost leading rusher/receiver Devin Wilson to graduation, but return QB Tynen Greer and RB Cole Macek who both saw significant playing time as juniors. Montour will be in the playoff mix again this season, but will need contributions from some inexperienced players to compete for the conference title.

New Castle
The Red Hurricane lost their season finale to Hopewell in a do-or-die game for the playoffs. New Castle boasts two D1 recruits on offense: QB Julian Cox (committed to Villanova) and WR Malik Hooker (committed to Ohio State as a DB). New Castle certainly has the talent to be a playoff team, but the Parkway is absolutely loaded this season so they will need their offense to be consistent this season after being held under 20 points 5 times last season and scoring 48+ in their other 4 outings.

Quarterback Chandler Kincade committed to Pitt as a sophomore, but is now on Akron's commit list as he heads into his senior season. Kincade threw for 2200 yards as a junior and led Blackhawk to the 3rd best offense in the conference. The Cougars top rusher and top two receivers graduated, but they boast a Bowling Green recruit in TE Andy Podbielski. The Cougars need to find a way to shore up their defense, which was 3rd worst in the conference and cost them a few games - including the season opener against West Allegheny where they were gashed down the middle for a huge touchdown as time expired.

The Bridgers have slowly rebuilt their program and had a casket match with Blackhawk in the season finale last year where a win would have sent them to the postseason for the first time since 2005. The Bridgers return a number of players from last year's team, including triple threat Stephan McGinnis who was led the team in receiving, and was second in rushing and passing last season as a sophomore.

After a 1-3 start, the Vikings won 3 of their last 4 conference games to make the playoffs in the first year of the post-Rushel Shell era. The Vikings had 3 backs run for over 500 yards last season and return two of them - senior Mike Tempalski and junior Tyler Ishman. Hopewell has never been known as a passing team and will need to control the ground game again this season to stay in the race for a playoff spot in the stacked Parkway Conference.

Moon has not been to the playoffs since 2006 and it will likely be another long season for the Tigers. RB Anthony Colaianni ran for almost 1000 yards last year as a junior. The biggest concern is the Tigers defense which surrendered 40+ points in each of their last 5 conference games last season and finished as the 5th worst in AAA.

Chartiers Valley
The move to the Parkway Conference did not go well for the Colts last season. Char Valley has made the playoffs only once in the last 3 seasons after making 7 consecutive playoff appearances. The first task for new coach Niel Loebig will be to improve the Colts defense, which finished as the worst in AAA last season.

Playoff Predictions:
Big Nine: Thomas Jefferson, West Mifflin, Elizabeth Forward, Belle Vernon, Ringgold
Greater Allegheny: Mars, Franklin Regional, Highlands, Hampton, Knoch
Parkway: West Allegheny, Central Valley, Montour, New Castle, Blackhawk, Ambridge
Championship: West Allegheny over Thomas Jefferson