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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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