The top two teams in AAA reside, once again, in the Parkway Conference in two-time defending WPIAL Champion West Allegheny and the new powerhouse of Central Valley. Outside of those two and TJ, the Greater Allegheny Conference might be the deepest it has been in years with the addition of Gateway from the Quad-A ranks. The Parkway Conference is not as deep as it has been in the past, but all three conferences should provide entertaining playoff races and battles at the top, starting with TJ vs Ringgold in Week 1 in the Big Nine and wrapping up with Central Valley vs West Allegheny in Week 9.
Don't forget to bookmark my WPIAL Standings Page (the only one available with all tiebreakers listed!) I should note that teams are organized in Conference previews by my predicted order of finish.
Also, all helmet images courtesy of PA Helmet Project.
Big Nine Conference
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I would have to be certifiably insane not to pick Thomas Jefferson to win the Big Nine Conference. The Jaguars enter 2014 with a WPIAL-leading 19-year streak of making the playoffs and have reached at least the semi-finals in 15 of the last 16 years. Senior RB Austin Kemp ran for 1100 yards and 17 TDs last season for the Jaguars. Legendary coach Bill Cherpak also returns a pair of junior RBs in Rickey Daley and Braden Pahanish who both ran for over 300 yards last year.
Even with the move to the Big Nine Conference, Ringgold still hasn't been able to shake the stigma of the Keystone Conference, having gone out in the first round of the playoffs in 3 of the last 4 seasons. The Rams are led by dual-threat Senior QB Nico Law who threw for 1494 yards and 14 TDs and ran for 1210 yards and 14 TDs last season. Chacar Berry was the Rams second-leading rusher and third-leading receiver last year as a sophomore, accounting for 785 total yards and a team-leading 15 TDs.
The Titans had a run of success during speedy RB Jimmy Wheeler's career, but now that Wheeler has graduated the Titans will have to find a new identity on offense. QB Karlyn Garner threw for 864 yards and 8 TDs as a sophomore and he returns his top two receivers in Kevin Garbark and Javon Gibson. RB DiAngelo Mitchell also returns for his senior year after seeing a handful of touches and averaging 8.3 yards per carry last season.
The Hillers had been successful since moving to AAA from Quad-A in 2006, making the playoffs in 6 of the 8 seasons. However, 2013 was a departure from the norm as they finished in the basement of the Big Nine Conference thanks to an anemic offense that averaged just 11.8 points per game. Their sole win was a 10-8 victory over Laurel Highlands. There are 18 rising seniors on this squad and they should return to the mix for the playoffs once again this season with 6'4" senior QB Forrest Cullings at the helm.
Uniontown closed the season strong, winning two of their last three games, but had the second-worst defense in all of AAA. They allowed at least 35 points in 7 of their 9 outings and will need to shore up on the defensive side of the ball if they're going to make a run at the playoffs in 2014. Leading receiver and third-leading rusher Lyric Ellis returns for his senior season.
After a strong start to the season, Albert Gallatin collapsed down the stretch, losing their last 6 games. QB Hunter Moody struggled as a sophomore, throwing 11 interceptions and just 2 touchdowns. The rest of their offensive skill position starters graduated and 2014 has all the makings of another year of struggles. The Colonials have only made the playoffs once since 1981, that appearance coming in 2005.
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In 2010, the Golden Tigers made the playoffs for the first time since joining the WPIAL. Since then, Hollidaysburg has reached the playoffs in 3 of the last 4 seasons and have two consecutive playoff appearances thanks to edging out tiebreakers. QB Josh Bickley threw for 774 yards and 7 TDs as a junior and returns leading receiver Ryan Waltz. Bickley, along with fellow juniors Reid Miller and Colton Ruggery all accounted for over 60 carries last year and figure to share the workload once again. In total, 8 offensive starters and 9 defensive starters return for the Golden Tigers.
The Lions narrowly missed the playoffs last season, losing out in a 4-way tiebreaker with Hampton, Hollidaysburg and Knoch for the last two playoff spots. They had the 8th-worst defense in AAA last season. QB Brady Mason returns for his senior season but will have to improve on his ratio of 9 INTs to just 3 TDs from last year. Second-leading rusher Lenny Grebeck also returns after averaging 8.6 yards per carry last year.
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Since Center and Monaca merged in 2010, Central Valley has been a dominant force in AAA, reaching the Semi-finals in all 4 seasons and Heinz Field twice. They had the best defense in AAA last season, pitching 6 shutouts and holding 3 more opponents to a touchdown or less. Their only two losses were to AAA Champion West Allegheny in the regular season and at Heinz Field. All-around athlete Jordan Whitehead is one of the top D1 prospects in all of Pennsylvania and has a scholarship offer from 20+ schools, including Alabama. Whitehead projects as a CB but scored 20 TDs last season as a RB and WR. QB John George returns for his senior season after throwing for 703 yards and 8 TDs and rushing for 403 yards and 6 TDs after taking over under center halfway through the season. His main targets will be Whitehead and 6'4" senior WR BJ Powell. RB Preston Johnson was the team's fourth leading rusher and second leading scorer last season and is a standout linebacker that anchors the defense. Central Valley gets West Allegheny at home this season in a game that will decide the conference champion.
The Spartans have made 3 trips to Heinz Field in the last 7 years, but backed into the playoffs last year, losing their last two games before falling to Franklin Regional. Junior QB Randall Labrie saw some spot work last year and second leading receiver Tyler Carswell and third leading rusher David Haseleu also return. The Spartans are a young team that will feature mostly juniors at the offensive skill positions and are not in a place to compete with the big guns for the conference crown. However, they should be good enough to be in the playoff hunt and 2014 will be a building block for a run at the Parkway title in 2015.
Last season was an unmitigated disaster for the Vikings as they got their clocks cleaned by all 8 of their Parkway Conference foes. The Vikings couldn't stop anyone and gave up 40+ points in each of their last 6 conference games. The good news is that they return a lot of players who saw significant playing time last season. RB DiMontae Bronaugh led the team in rushing last season with 868 yards as a sophomore. Tyler Ishman was second on the team in rushing and led the team in scoring as a junior. Given the amount of talent that graduated from some other Parkway Conference teams, the Vikings have a chance to get back into the playoffs this season.
The Red Hurricanes graduated most of their offensive skill position players from the team that finished 7th in AAA in offense last season. Junior Pat Minenok figures to take over at QB after seeing some spot duty last season and will have to develop a rapport with a largely unproven group of offensive players. In total, the Red Hurricanes graduated 27 players from last year's team and will feature a lot of young players as they rebuild. Keep an eye out for freshman Marcus Hooker, younger brother of last year's star senior Malik Hooker who is now at Ohio State.
The Cougars finished 2013 strong, winning their last two games, but it wasn't enough to lift them into the postseason. Leading rusher Timothy Mancini accounted for 811 yards of total offense and 6 TDs last year as a junior and is the only major offensive skill player returning. Fortunately for Blackhawk, the middle of the Parkway Conference is wide open as no one has many starters returning in 2014.
In 2013 Senior RB Cole Blake carried the Tigers to their first playoff appearance in 7 years. Blake's 1766 yards and 21 touchdowns was their entire offense and the Tigers will need to find a way to replace his production if they are going to return to the postseason. The good news is that most of their stout line returns, led by Niko Yaramus. QB Aleksi Yaramus also returns for his senior year, but it's hard to say if he can carry the team after he spent most of his junior year handing off. If Moon can find some offense, they can compete for a playoff spot this season. If they can't, it will be back to the bottom of the Parkway for the Tigers.
AAA Playoff Predictions:
Big Nine: Thomas Jefferson, Ringgold, West Mifflin, Belle Vernon, Elizabeth Forward
Greater Allegheny: Mars, Gateway, Franklin Regional, Knoch, Indiana, Hampton
Parkway: West Allegheny, Central Valley, Montour, Hopewell, New Castle
Championship: Central Valley over West Allegheny