Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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

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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

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