“Mr. High School Sports” – WPIAL Football Week in Review
By Matt Popchock
It’s been a busy week on the field for pro and college football, between playoffs and national championships, and it’s been a busy week off the field for the WPIAL.
A few thoughts on what has happened in the past seven days:
*All-time rushing leader Rushel Shell apparently will honor commitment to Pitt, and he says the impression the current team made on him was a factor in his decision to do so, but he also told the Tribune-Review he won’t judge new coach Paul Chryst until they meet face-to-face this week.
I’m not surprised Graham’s one and only recruiting class has stayed relatively intact, because I think those kids have enough common sense to see Graham’s surprise departure as an indictment of the man himself, not the program, nor its style of play. In contrast, Dave Wannstedt was a well-known, well-respected figure who was counted upon to teach a different kind of football that suited the players he pursued. The way Pitt parted ways with Wannstedt came off as an insult to some of those recruits, and Graham’s approach to the game might have been too vast a difference for some to handle.
Furthermore, I’m even less surprised Shell ignored Ohio State, to say nothing of anyone else who might have tried to court him unbeknownst to us after Graham bolted. Pitt and Shell have been very high on each other since he won MaxPreps National Freshman of the Year, and once the rumors of him being an expectant father became serious, I felt the writing was on the wall for him to stay close to home.
Pitt may be a program that has fallen on hard times, but that won’t stop him from living up to his awesome potential as long as he is willing to do for Chryst what Khem Birch wasn’t willing to do for Jamie Dixon: cooperate.
(More on that later, by the way…)
Shell, in my mind, is already destined for the NFL. How do I know? He’ll be playing in the Big 33 Classic at Hershey this summer, and Hopewell’s other three Big 33 selections–Tony Dorsett, Paul Pozluszny, and Curt Stringer (an offensive tackle drafted by the Redskins in 1984 who later played sporadically with the Lions, Seahawks, and Jets)–have all suited up on Sundays.
I’ll have more on the Big 33 Classic as the June all-star game draws nearer, but anyway, Shell is an exceptional athlete who has the world at his fingertips. Now Chryst has to keep him under his thumb.
*Dennis Edwards turned some heads a week ago when he inexplicably resigned as head football coach at East Allegheny, a program with which he spent over a decade and a half.
The Wildcats finished 5-5 overall in his final season, going 5-3 in the Interstate Conference to grab that section’s final playoff berth, and thus, the right to get their brains beaten in by an excellent Seton-LaSalle squad in the WPIAL Class AA First Round.
The same can be said for District 7 legend Neil Gordon, who voluntarily walked away from Shaler at the end of the week.
Expectations were high for the 2011 Titans, but a Penguin-esque rash of injuries hampered them early in the season. That team, which featured versatile tight end and possible Pitt recruit J.P. Holtz, only managed a 5-5 finish as well (3-3 in Northern Seven play), and was also blasted in its playoff opener, by Gateway.
With more freshmen (13) on the roster than seniors (10), East Allegheny looks like a fairly young team going into 2012. Offense will be tougher for the ‘Cats to come by since they graduate their starting backfield, but QB Kyle Whipple is only going to be a sophomore, and he put up okay numbers last year, so that team has room to grow. I’m sure that makes the timing of Edwards’ decision interesting.
Shaler, on the other hand, is graduating almost 30 players, and with the exception of running back Niko Thorpe, who will be a junior this fall, most of the key ingredients from that team will be gone. Plus, that conference, with former state champion North Allegheny as its torch-bearer, never gets easier. So if there were ever a sensible time for Gordon to make an amicable split and satisfy his urge to try new things, this looks like it.
Gordon says he’s not retiring; rather, he wants a new job this coming season, and I suspect he’ll get it. I don’t have any tangible insight right now as to where Gordon might end up, but I can say, with confidence, that whichever program brings him aboard will be very fortunate to have him.
For the life of me, I’ll never understand why Penn Hills let him go. As “Black and Yellow” artist Wiz Khalifa says, all he does is win. Shaler became a better team under Gordon’s watch, and although I certainly don’t intend to wish ill upon any student-athlete or group thereof, it almost serves Penn Hills right that its team seemed to regress a bit under Ron Graham, who resigned after last season.
Did the Indians underachieve at times under Gordon? Okay, maybe. But while coaches can lose games, it takes players to win games, and being one of the winningest coaches in WPIAL history tells me Gordon has done more right than wrong over the past quarter-century.
Anyway, where do I think Gordon might go? Well, if I have to speculate, the first school that comes to mind is Mount Lebanon, which just saw longtime coach Chris Haering take an assistant role on Chryst’s new staff at Pitt.
Once again, let me couch that statement: I have nothing to back that up. But it’s not an irrational thought, is it?
The Blue Devils have been one of the most consistent teams in Quad-A thanks to Haering, and they’re going to want to avoid a backslide by tabbing an equally seasoned coach to succeed Haering. Mount Lebanon has more money than the Pope; the district is going to be building new facilities soon, and Haering was making six figures on top of a lucrative teaching job. It wouldn’t have any trouble luring Gordon.
*What’s the best thing Haering has going for him right now, to say nothing of the opportunity at Pitt itself? He’ll get to coach two of the best linebackers to recently come from the WPIAL, former Woodland Hills teammates Mike Caprara and Ejuan Price.
Caprara, who became the program’s all-time leading tackler by the end of his junior season, led the Wolverines in that category again in 2011, and over the weekend he became Chryst’s first-ever recruit at Pitt. Price registered 17 solo tackles and four sacks for the Panthers this past fall.
Ironically, there was once, reportedly, mutual interest between Ohio State and both young men; Price even committed there. Both lost interest in the aftermath of the Jim Tressel scandal.
Price, who, mark my words, will grow into a beast, impressed me as a true freshman when I got to see him play in person. Another former WPIAL product, Beaver Falls’ Todd Thomas, also looked good to me when he was healthy, putting up 34 solo tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2011.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like Pitt’s linebackers took a lot of heat from fans for the way that defense performed at times last year. However, with good young talent at the position, including Caprara, and a proven coach to mold that talent, I think linebacker will be a real position of strength for Pitt moving forward.
Some might say the program has over-valued WPIAL talent in recent years. Not this time.
*Speaking of recruiting, Illinois has a nice get in McKeesport linebacker Tyrone “T.J.” Neal, who, like Caprara, committed over the weekend. Neal had offers coast to coast, including ones from Syracuse, Nebraska, and WVU.
My sources told me the Orange were pulling hard for him, so his decision to go to the Big Ten is a bit of a surprise, especially when you consider Illinois threw its hat into the ring late. But it should be a good fit for Neal nevertheless. The Illini are coming off a year in which they ranked third in the nation in pass defense and No. 7 in total defense.
He was ranked among the top 50 in Pennsylvania by Rivals.com, and among the top 100 linebackers nationally by MaxPreps.
Meanwhile, Western Beaver athlete Dustin Creel signed his letter of intent to play for Eastern Michigan upon returning home from his weekend trip to the MAC school. His only other serious D-1 offer came from MAC rival Toledo, though Connecticut also showed some interest.
Creel ranked among the top ten in scoring in WPIAL Class A with 16 TD’s and 114 total points last season, and racked up over 1,000 yards of offense as a runner and receiver. Western Beaver finished 5-5 and lost to Brentwood in its playoff opener.
Eastern Michigan, in 2011, was actually one of the top 15 teams in Division I in terms of rushing yardage per game.
*Former New Castle head coach Lindy Lauro died Friday. Mike White eulogized him nicely, and another Post-Gazette employee, sports editor Jerry Micco, did the same on “The Post-Gazette Roundtable” (Saturdays at 6 A.M. on 93.7 The Fan):
He may not be the most recognized coach of all-time, but New Castle, years ago, became the Pittsburgh Steelers of high school football in western Pennsylvania, and Lauro had a great deal to do with it.
BREAKING NEWS: 5:00 P.M., Monday: Upper St. Clair outside linebacker Dakota Conwell has switched allegiance to Arizona after committing to Pitt during Todd Graham’s tenure.
I’ll have more on that soon at 937thefan.com.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)