Thursday, August 28, 2014

WPIAL A Preview

In the interest of brevity, I'm going to keep this introductory paragraph short. Given that my alma mater is the defending WPIAL and PIAA Class A Champions, I could probably write 2000 words about just North Catholic (I didn't, but here's my recap of last season). The defending champions are loaded once again with almost all of their offensive skill position players returning. After a "down" year where they lost a conference game and fell in the semi-finals, perennial powerhouse Clairton is stacked with talent once again. WPIAL realignment hit Class A the hardest, causing a major reshuffling of the conferences. The old Eastern and Black Hills conferences were hacked apart and spliced together with the addition of Jeanette and Greensburg Central Catholic to the Class A ranks. The Tri-County South remains largely unchanged, but the conference has not won a playoff game since 2010 when both Monessen and Beth-Center won their first round games. Geibel Catholic, who struggled with a lack of players and has forfeited 4 games over the last 2 seasons, is taking a hiatus from football. Vincentian Academy joins the WPIAL ranks this year after playing two seasons as an unaffiliated school.

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 Seven

View A: Big Seven in a larger map


After seven years of missing the playoffs, Neshannock has reached the semi-finals in each of the last two seasons. The burden of the offense will fall on Senior RB Eli Owens who ran for 1,469 yards and 13 TDs as a junior and 1,268 yards as a sophomore. With Sto-Rox gone from the Big Seven, this is the Lancers' conference to lose at this point. Neshannock had the 5th best offense in Class A last season and return their top two receivers in Jimmy Medure and Rocco Fazio. The key to their success will be finding someone to take over under center as dual-threat QB Ernie Burkes graduated.


The Rams missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1996. Their 16-year run included 5 WPIAL titles and 9 trips to Heinz Field. The Rams biggest problems were on defense last season where they gave up 42+ points in each of their final 5 games after a 2-2 start to the season. The good news is that only four seniors graduated from last year's team so there is a lot of experience returning for Rochester. The two focal points - leading rusher Ishmal Tucker and quarterback Chase Long are both rising seniors that gained valuable experience last year.

Western Beaver

The Golden Beavers won their final two games last season to reach the playoffs for the third time in four years, though they have not made it out of the first round since 2008. Last year, turnovers doomed them in their playoff opener against eventual State Champion North Catholic. Leading rusher Hunter Roknich returns after rushing for 1208 yards and 14 TDs as a junior. Roknich figures to be one of the top running backs in Class A this season and his legs alone should be enough to put Western Beaver squarely in the hunt for a playoff spot.


The only saving grace to the Panthers 2013 campaign was a Week 9 victory over Freedom. Before that game, Riverside had only come within 30 points of an opponent once (a 20-12 loss to New Brighton) and had been shut out 3 times. They had the 4th worst defense in AA last year, but the move down to Class A should benefit them. Jason Dambach was the team's leading passer as a sophomore, throwing for 808 yards and 9 TDs. Junior Zach Gould also saw time at quarterback and WR. Leading rusher and receiver Marcel Cleckley returns for his senior season, giving the Panthers some experienced offensive weapons that should enable them to be competitive in the Big Seven if they can shore things up on defense.


After two unaffiliated seasons playing what amounted to a Tri-County South schedule, Vincentian has been officially added to the WPIAL ranks. The Catholic school in the North Hills boasts John Fedko as it's athletic director. Vincentian picked up 4 wins last season, highlighted by a 65-0 trouncing of Geibel and a 35-0 defeat of West Greene. They also finished the season with a 16-6 victory over Northgate. Only two seniors graduated from last year's team so they could be competitive in their first year as an officail WPIAL-affiliated school.


The Scotties made the playoffs in 2012 after a 9-year absense but took a step back in 2013, finishing in the middle of the pack in the Big Seven. RB Jordan Best was the team's second-leading scorer as a sophomore last season and should be the focal point of the offense this year. Union graduated most of their offensive and defensive linemen, and will have to find replacements up front if they are going to compete for a playoff spot again this season.

South Side Beaver

The Rams had another winless season last year and have lost 11 straight games dating back to October 13, 2012. Despite finishing without a victory, there is some hope for the future. The Rams were competitive in half of their games, losing 3 by less than 10 points and 5 by less than two touchdowns. Junior Nathan Block took over at QB in Week 6 and ended the season as the team's leading rusher and leading passer. Fellow rising Senior Jake Berger also saw time at QB.


The Wildcats spent another year struggling at the bottom of the Big Seven Conference. They have not reached the playoffs since 2006 when they played in AA. Most of their offensive skill position players have graduated and their coach left for cross-town rival Laurel (who moved up to AA).All in all, this does not look like a very promising season for Shenango.

Black Hills

View A: Black Hills in a larger map

Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic

Ring The Bell Again. The hallowed halls of Troy Hill have shut their doors for the last time, but the Victory Bell and the PIAA State Champions trophy will make their way up 279 to their new home in Cranberry. Things will be different for my alma mater this year, which tacks "Cardinal Wuerl" in front of their name and finally gets air-conditioned classrooms! Some things will stay the same, including still playing their home games at Lt JC Stone Field in North Park. The reigning State Champions return leading rusher PJ Fulmore, who is one of the top prospects in the WPIAL and verbally committed to Duquesne. Fulmore ran for 1213 yards last year despite missing 6 games due to injury. Fulmore was forced into quarterback duty his second game back when QB Adam Sharlow (who also returns for his senior year) suffered an ACL injury. Fellow rising senior Jerome Turner ran for 1151 yards and 24 TDs last season. Keep an eye out for speedy Sophomore Mario Latronica who ran for 566 yards and 8 TDs as a Freshman. The Trojans are loaded with talent at the offensive skill positions, but will have to replace most of their offensive line which was the key in their run to the state title. Ring. The. Bell. Again.


Avonworth came closer than any other WPIAL team to defeating North Catholic last season. They will have to replace their quarterback and leading receiver, but rising Senior Josh Drwal and rising Junior Jamal Hughley should be up to the challenge. RB Moses Giles returns for his junior year after leading the team with 818 yards and 16 TDs last year. The Antelopes should be considered the top challenger to North Catholic, primarily because of their defense which was the best in Class A last season. The Lopes have made the playoffs each of the last 6 seasons and have only been knocked out in the first round once.


The Spartans have made the playoffs in 10 of the last 12 seasons, including each of the last 6. Senior QB Connor McWilliams is one of the best in Class A and comes off a junior year where he threw for 1745 yards and 14 TDs. Top rushers Pat Carr and Bill Madeja return. Madeja was also the team's leading receiver. 6'1" receiver Tyler Paranzino also returns for his senior season, giving McWilliams a full complement of weapons to work with. The Spartans should be right in the mix for the playoffs once again this season and could challenge some of the teams at the top of the conference.

Bishop Canevin

The Crusaders had a rare down year at the bottom of the Black Hills Conference last year, but get the opportunity to renew their Catholic school rivalry with North Catholic and OLSH thanks to realignment. QB Reed Relosky returns for his Senior season after throwing for 1203 yards and 11 TDs and leading the team in rushing. A Week 4 injury to RB Giovanni DeMarzo hurt Canevin's offensive output. Leading receiver Sean Fitzgerald returns for his junior year. Canevin had the 2nd worst defense in the conference last year, but the gap was not that great as they gave up 29.1 points per game and the 3rd best defense (Brentwood) was only a touchdown better at 22.3 points per game.

Fort Cherry

The Rangers split the Black Hills Conference title with Clairton and Monessen last season, but realignment has moved those two schools to the Eastern Conference. Fort Cherry had the best offense in Class A last season and their only losses were to Clairton in the regular season and quarterfinals. 2200-yard rusher Koltan Kobrys graduated and the Rangers will need to find someone to replace his production. The only returning starter at an offensive skill position is 6'2" WR Alex Babirad who had 607 yards and 9 TDs last season. The Rangers should be competitive again this season and will be right in the mix for a playoff spot for the 8th time in 9 seasons.


The Buccaneers just missed out on the playoffs last year after dropping their last two games to Monessen and Fort Cherry. Their leading passer and receiver have graduated, but a pair of rising Sophomores show that the future is bright. RB Spencer Terling led the team in rushing and was second in scoring last year as a freshman while WR AJ Myers was second in receiving and scored twice. This will likely be a rebuilding year for the Bucs with Terling and Myers as the focal points of the offense moving forward.


The Flames have only made the playoffs once in the last 10 years and will be hard-pressed to do so this year. Northgate suffered from the double-whammy last year of an anemic offense that failed to score 100 points total during the season and a porous defense that allowed over 300 points. QB Johnny Camello returns for his senior year after leading the team in passing and scoring last season. The Flames graduated only four seniors from last year's team, so their young players have a wealth of experience to build on for the 2014 campaign.


The Chargers just started playing WPIAL football a few years ago, but the Catholic school in Moon is already knocking on the door of the playoffs. They just missed by one game in the Big Seven Conference last year after winning 4 of their last 5 games. Their offense averaged just 12.9 points per game but they have some players returning. QB Joseph Sebes returns along with two of his top three receivers in Cedric Gray and Eric Hall. Junior John Truskowski figures to take over at running back after carrying the ball 63 times last year. There are only 6 rising seniors on the Chargers roster, which means this could be a challenging season for a young team that builds experience in a difficult conference.


View A Eastern in a larger map


The 2013 season saw Clairton's incredible 66-game winning streak come to an end in Week 4 against Monessen and their championship streak come to an end in the semi-finals. The offseason saw coach Tom Nola leave for Gateway and defensive coordinator Wayne Wade step in to take his place. The pipeline is strong in Clairton and they are one of the top teams in Class A. The Bears have won 6 of the last 8 Class A Championships and both of their playoff losses have come in the Semi-Finals. Realignment has returned them to the Eastern Conference this season, which should be one of the best in the WPIAL. The Bears are loaded with athletes including 6'5" Junior Aaron Mathews who ran for 1,010 yards and 15 TDs last season while also being the team's leading passer. Ryan Williams also saw time at quarterback as a junior and leading receiver James Hines returns. Rising Sophomore LaMont Wade has been pegged as a 5-star prospect at cornerback and was second on the team in rushing last season. Hidden amongst all this talent is rising junior Harrison Dreher who averged 40 yards per reception and 10.6 yards per carry last year. The Bears are brimming with talent and should find their way back to Heinz Field this season.

Greensburg Central Catholic

The Centurions move down from AA after an 11-year run of playoff appearances that includes 3 trips to Heinz Field and one WPIAL title. The hallmark of GCC football has been a lockdown defense and the unit was 3rd in their conference last year in AA. On offense, they lose their leading rusher and receiver but rising Junior Thomas Pellis was the team's leading passer last season after taking over in Week 2. GCC could push Clairton for the conference title and gets to maintain their rivalry with Jeanette.


After a hot 4-0 start to 2013, the Jayhawks missed the playoffs by virtue of an 0-5 finish. Julian Batts returns for his senior season under center after throwing for 900 yards last year. Most of his weapons have graduated and the burden of the offense will likely fall on Zack Altieri who averaged 8.3 yards per carry on just 30 carries and 17.7 yards per reception last season. Jeanette's usually strong defense showed some cracks last season, finishing as the 3rd worst in the conference. The drop down to Single-A should help them and their matchup against Clairton might be the best game on the conference slate.


The Dynamos saw their 11-year playoff run come to an end last season. Their biggest problem was their inability to find the end zone, scoring only 63 points all season. The Dynamos will need to improve on offense, which was the 3rd lowest-scoring in Single-A and the 5th-lowest in the entire WPIAL. Quarterback Daniel Franskousky returns for his senior year after leading the team in rushing and passing last season. Second-leading rusher Austin Kline and leading receiver TE Adam Lock return for their senior seasons as well. While they have never played in a conference with Monessen, there is a budding rivalry as Springdale has knocked Monessen out of the playoffs in 6 of the last 11 seasons.


The Greyhounds ran through the Black Hills Conference last year, splitting the conference title with Clairton and Fort Cherry. The highlight of their season was a Week 4 victory over Clairton which ended the Bears 66-game winning streak. QB Noah Rullo returns for his senior year after throwing for 1308 yards and 19 TDs. Only one of his top 4 receivers returns and one of his top 4 rushers. Junior Demond Jordan figures to take over the lead RB role as the Greyhounds try to replace the 14 seniors that graduated last year. They should be in the mix for a playoff spot and it could come down to a game with their recent nemesis Springdale to decide the last playoff spot.


The Raiders were one of the dominant programs in Class A in the late 90s, reaching the title game in Three Rivers Stadium 3 times and winning once, along with 2 semi-finals appearances. Since that 1998 semi-final loss to Monaca, Riverview has not made it past the quarterfinals and has missed the playoffs in each of the last 6 seasons. Last year was the bottoming out when they finished last in the Eastern Conference. QB Tyler Nigro returns for his senior season after a Week 3 injury derailed his junior year. Leading rusher Keir Barber also returns to a team that graduated only 6 seniors. Five of those 6 seniors were linemen, so the Raiders will need to build a new group in the trenches to support their returning skill players.


The Tigers have won 5 games in the last two seasons, which may not sound like much, but for a program that was the basement-dweller of the Eastern Conference, that's a step in the right direction. Leading scorer RB Montay Clancy returns for his senior season. The Tigers will be celebrating the 100-year anniversary of their victory in the first ever WPIAL Championship. There was a great article in the Trib about it. The biggest hurdle for Wilksinburg this year will be finding able bodies after they started camp with just 17 players on the roster.

Serra Catholic

The Eagles enter the season riding a 20-game losing streak, the longest in Class A and the 3rd longest in the WPIAL. They have not won since 2011. They can thank Derry for supplanting them as the worst defense in the WPIAL, but their 54.2 points per game allowed in 2013 was almost a touchdown worse than their 48.4 in 2012. Their offense did show some improvement, scoring in double-digits in 7 of their 9 games. Zac Quatrone returns for his senior season after rushing for 1047 yards and throwing for 1011. His primary target, WR Joe Satira also returns. Moving to the Eastern Conference with Wilkinsburg and Leechburg gives Serra a chance to break their losing streak this season.


The Blue Devils didn't quite make it out of the basement of the Eastern Conference last season, but did finish in a 3-way tie for next-to-last. They scored two victories over Northgate and Riverview and had the best offense of the non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for the fans in Leechburg, who have not seen a playoff appearance since 1988, the team graduated most of their offensive skill position players and will likely spend another year at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Tri-County South

View A Tri-County South in a larger map


The Bulldogs were the cream of the crop in the Tri-County South last year, going 9-0 and only having one victory of less than 10 points. However, the WPIAL did not believe in their 9-0 record and gave them the 8th seed in Class A where Beth-Center fell 42-28 to Apollo-Ridge in the first round. Anthony Welsh led the team in rushing with 1202 yards and 21 TDs as a sophomore. The Bulldogs have made the playoffs in each of the last 11 seasons and have won four of the last 6 conference titles. Even with the graduation of their quarterback and leading receiver, Beth-Center is still the favorite to finish atop the Tri-County South. Whether or not they are able to break the conference's 3-year playoff losing streak is a different matter, however.


After two years of languishing in the brutally difficult Black Hills Conference, the Trojans get their wish and return to the Tri-County South where they had made the playoffs in 12 of 13 seasons before moving to the Black Hills. Even though the Trojans graduated 10 seniors from last year's team, the rest of the roster should be good enough to make them competitive in the Tri-County South. With only 7 rising seniors on the squad, this figures to be a relatively young and inexperienced squad. However, they came within a game of the playoffs last year when they lost to Brentwood in Week 9. California is perfectly capable of challenging for a home playoff game and should be making a return trip to the postseason.


The Eagles were the feel-good story of the Class A regular season. Just a few years removed from having to use cheerleaders and members of the band just to be able to field a team, Avella reached the playoffs for the first time since 1976. Five starters return for Avella, including QB Santino Parris who threw for 1246 yards and 16 TDs last season. The top 3 receivers have all graduated but leading rusher Nick Kusich returns after leading the team in scoring with 12 TDs. The Eagles should be right in the mix for the playoffs once again and could be in the running for a home playoff game that comes with a top-2 finish in the conference.


The Mighty Mikes had a very good season last year, finishing second to Beth-Center after a 6-point loss (they were the only team to come within 10 of the Bulldogs). Carmichaels has made the playoffs in 14 of the last 15 seasons but have not won a first round game since their run to the semi-finals in 2002. They came the closest of any Tri-County South team to winning a playoff game last year, falling 13-12 to Fort Cherry in the opening round. Almost all of their starters from that team graduated, but the tradition is strong at Carmichaels and they should be good enough to make the playoffs.


The Commodores rose from the depths of anonymity and have made the playoffs in each of the last 3 seasons after an 8-year playoff drought. Five starters return for Frazier, including leading rusher Nick Smalich. Frazier relied primarily on their passing game last year but graduated their quarterback and leading receiver. Second-leading receiver TE Nathaniel Zurich returns for his senior season. Even though they will have to find someone to take over under center, only 2 of their offensive linemen graduated and Frazier looks poised to make another run at the playoffs.


Three years removed from a winless 2010 campaign, the Maples took another step forward with a 4-win 2013 season. They have not made the postseason since 2005 but there is some hope this season as a number of starters return. Leading rusher Adam Hein returns for his senior season, along with QB Ben Boone who may move to receiver this year. Mapletown was a squarely middle-of-the-road team in the conference last season, winning all of their games by at least 2 touchdowns but losing by 27+ in each of their defeats.


The Rockets have made the playoffs twice in the last 6 years and they return 6 starters on both offense and defense from a team that won just two conference games last year. Two of the top three rushers in Kailin Foster and Dalton Fowler return this year. The Rockets actually had the fourth best defense in the conference last year and will need a similar effort this season in order to return to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

West Greene

The Pioneers had the misfortune of a porous defense, which finished 4th worst in Single-A and an anemic offense, which finished 2nd worst in Single-A. West Greene does return QB Owen Main but will need to find an answer on the defensive side of the ball. An answer could come on the lines where only one senior graduated. After their opening week victory over Bentworth, the Pioneers only scored in double-digits once and were shut out 5 times. Their defense was equally bad, surrendering 35+ points in each of their last 8 outings and giving up 48+ in half of those.


The move from the Black Hills to the Tri-County South has not benefited Bentworth in the same way it has benefited Avella. Their only win was a victory over undermanned Geibel in Week 7 and they will not have that luxury on their schedule this season. In the rest of their outings, they were shut out 4 times and only scored multiple times in two outings. Aside from the Geibel game, they surrendered 40+ points in all but one conference game. They do return their top two rushers and QB Angelo Rios-Lopez. The Bearcats finished with the 3rd worst offense in the conference and the worst defense in the league, which is merely a technicality because Geibel did not play 3 games.

Playoff Predictions:
Big Seven: Neshannock, Rochester, Western Beaver, Riverside
Black Hills: CWNC, Avonworth, Brentwood, Bishop Canevin
Eastern: Clairton, GCC, Jeanette, Springdale
Tri-County South: Beth-Center, California, Avella, Carmichaels

Championship: Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic over Clairton

No comments: