Tuesday, August 26, 2014


As the 2014 season dawns, there is a new lead dog in AAA football. For years, Thomas Jefferson was considered the preeminent program, and while the Jaguars have maintained a high level of success, it would be hard to argue against West Allegheny. Coach Bob Palko has now won 7 WPIAL Championships, more than any other coach, including three of the last five. West Allegheny has undergone a metoric rise after reaching the playoffs for the first time in school history in 1993. Their second playoff berth did not come until 1997 but since then the Indians have reached the playoffs in 16 of 17 seasons and won 7 championships. By comparison, Thomas Jefferson has not missed the playoffs since 1994 and have won 4 titles. TJ's run has been impressive because of their playoff success - while they haven't reached Heinz Field since 2008, they have made the semi-finals in 16 of the last 19 years.

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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Thomas Jefferson

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.

West Mifflin

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.

Belle Vernon

The Leopards started slow but won 3 of their last 4 to sneak into the playoffs for the 5th straight season. Belle Vernon has reached the playoffs in 10 of the last 13 years since their run to the semi-finals in 2000 but have been eliminated in the first round each time. Freshman Mike Fine took over at quarterback in Week 4 last year and threw for over 600 yards and 6 TDs. Junior Travis Snyder also saw time at quarterback, giving the Leopards two returning players with signal-calling experience. Belle Vernon is still a young team after a pair of sophomores in Luke Durigon and Derek Verkleeren led the team in rushing last season. This should serve as a building block year for the sophomore and junior starters on the squad and they should make the playoffs while they build towards their senior year.

Elizabeth Forward

The Warriors made the playoffs in 2013, their first back-to-back appearances in the postseason since 1999 and 2000. They should be right in the thick of the race once again this season, even after graduating most of their offensive skill position players. RB Ryan Wardropper still has one of the best names in the WPIAL.

Laurel Highlands

The Mustangs went through some growing pains last season with sophomore QB Jimmy Pierce. When all was said and done, Pierce led the team in passing and rushing and gained some valuable experience. The Mustangs return their leading rushers and receivers in senior Jason Leone and junior Chad Livingston. There is enough talent here to make a run for the last playoff spot, which will likely come down to their games against Trinity and Elizabeth Forward.


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.

Albert Gallatin

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.

Greater Allegheny

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The Fighting Planets carry a 9-year postseason streak into 2013 but have only advanced past the quarterfinals once (a semi-final appearance in 2010). The Planets had the third best offense and 5th best defense in AAA last season. Leading rusher Josh Schultheis returns for his senior season after posting 1600-yard seasons as a sophomore and junior. Schultheis is the only offensive skill position starter returning for Mars, but with experienced players returning in the trenches, he is capable of carrying this team to a conference title on his own.


The Gators moved down from Quad-A where they reached the playoffs in 12 consecutive seasons but routinely underachieved in the postseason. Gateway has been a pipeline for Division 1 talent and with former Clairton coach Tom Nola at the helm, they could dominate in AAA. The Gators graduated 16 seniors from last year's team, including most of their offensive skill position players. The talent pool is deep enough for the Gators to be right in the mix for the conference title with four starting linemen returning.

Franklin Regional

The Panthers have had a run of success since moving into the Greater Allegheny Conference, reaching the semi-finals in two of the last three seasons. Brett Zanotto figures to be a focal point of the offense after rushing for 649 yards and finishing as the team's leading scorer last year. Zanotto, a Maryland commit, is also a standout linebacker and is the leader of a defense that was the third-best in AAA last season.


The Knights missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 last year, but it was not for a lack of defense. Despite finishing next-to-last in the conference, the Knights boasted the third best defense in the GAC, but were hampered by the third-worst offense. After fielding a young team last year, Knoch looks primed for a return trip to the playoffs. QB Daniel Farinelli threw for 1175 yards and 7 TDs as a junior but lost his top three receivers. Cole Shinksy, a 6'3" junior WR, averaged 18.8 yards per reception last season and figures to be Farinelli's main target. The Knights return their top two rushers in senior Cody Milsom and junior Ben Lowery.


After a slow start to 2013, Indiana closed the season strong with two wins in the last two weeks over Knoch and Hollidaysburg to propel them into the playoffs where they defeated Ringgold in the first round before falling to eventual champion West Allegheny. Jake Zalinskas saw some time at QB in reserve work last year and leading receiver Riley Stapleton who accounted for 50 catches for 702 yards last season also returns. The Indians run a wide open passing attack and should be right in the mix for a playoff spot.


The Talbots stumbled down the stretch last year, going just 1-3 in October, but the one win was enough to earn them a return trip to the playoffs. Senior QB Nick Grabowski should be one of the top passers in AAA after throwing for 1368 yards and 16 TDs last season. The leading rushers and receivers from last year's team graduated but with Grabowski at the helm the Talbots should be good enough to compete for a playoff spot.


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.

Greensburg Salem

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.


The Cougars made the playoffs last season for the first time since they dropped down to AA in 2010. However, with the move back to AAA but lost Tyler Donahue who accounted for over 2000 yards of total offense. Leading rusher and receiver Clayton Waldron returns and Eric Baer figures to take over at quarterback after seeing time in reserve of Donahue last season. Ultimately, the move up in class will likely doom Yough to the bottom of a conference that is stacked with good teams.

Parkway Conference

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West Allegheny

Bob Palko's Indians have been the most dominant team in AAA over the last 6 seasons. The two-time defending AAA Champions bring back most of their roster and are the favorites to achieve the rare three-peat as Champions. The current senior class enters the year with a 30-8 overall record (30-6 against WPIAL opponents). In the last two seasons, West Allegheny has only lost once to a WPIAL opponent - a September 2012 loss at Central Valley. QB Andrew Koester led AAA in passing last year with 1651 yards and 19 TDs and has committed to St Francis. Workhorse back Chayse Dillon ran for 1203 yards, was the team's second leading receiver with 201 yards and was the second-leading scorer with 13 TDs. Both Koester and Dillon, along with WR Tyler Scanlon, LB Armand Dellovade and LB Sean Orsini return for their senior seasons. Juniors Terence Stephens and Whitney White averaged 7.0 and 6.6 yards per carry last season. Circle the season finale against Central Valley on the calendar, because the Warriors are the only team with a chance to stop West Allegheny this year.

Central Valley

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.

New Castle

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 Bridgers haven't made the postseason since 2005. Their biggest detriment has been their defense, which gave up 34+ points in 7 of their 9 games last season. Triple threat Stephon McGinnis accounted for 1154 yards of total offense and 11 total TDs between passing, rushing and receiving last season as a junior. Unfortunately, most of his surrounding cast has graduated ahead of him and McGinnis will have to shoulder the load single-handedly if Ambridge is going to break out of their postseason slump.


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.

Chartiers Valley

The Mustangs have struggled since moving from the Big Nine into the Parkway Conference. After graduating most of their offensive skill position players, this looks like another team destined for the bottom of the league. Char Valley had the worst defense in the conference (4th worst in AAA) and graduated 21 seniors from last year's team. With only 12 rising seniors, this will be a young team that will need to find offensive talent in order to compete for a playoff spot.

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

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