Thursday, August 29, 2013

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

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