By Matt Popchock
On the night of Friday, August 31, the 107th season of WPIAL football shall begin. This means scrimmages won’t officially commence until a couple weeks prior, but with 125 teams across 14 conferences and four classifications to discuss, it’s not too early to get excited.
We’re going to kick off our preseason coverage with a series of rapid-fire previews, beginning with the Eastern Conference in Class A. In 2011 it was one of the most competitive sections in the entire district, with six teams in the playoff picture till the final weekend of the regular season.
This year that race, once again, looks to be pretty open. Per the biennial realignment in District 7, Bishop Canevin and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart have moved out of the Eastern Conference, and Apollo-Ridge and West Shamokin have entered after moving down from Class AA.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK…
*-Bishop Canevin: 8-0, 11-1
*-Avonworth: 7-1, 9-2
*-Springdale: 6-2, 8-3
*-Northgate: 4-4, 5-5
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart: 4-4, 5-4
North Catholic: 4-4, 5-5
Riverview: 2-6, 2-7
Wilkinsburg: 1-7, 2-7
Leechburg: 0-8, 0-9
*-Bishop Canevin entered playoffs as No. 3 seed; defeated Chartiers-Houston 27-23 in WPIAL Class A First Round, defeated Fort Cherry 16-6 in WPIAL Class A Quarterfinals, lost to Sto-Rox 12-10 in WPIAL Class A Semifinals.
*-Avonworth entered playoffs as No. 5 seed; defeated California 28-16 in WPIAL Class A First Round, lost to Rochester 26-22 in WPIAL Class A Quarterfinals.
*-Springdale entered playoffs as No. 9 seed; defeated Monessen 65-30 in WPIAL Class A First Round, lost to Clairton 34-20 in WPIAL Class A Quarterfinals.
*-Northgate entered playoffs as No. 13 seed; lost to Rochester 48-22 in WPIAL Class A First Round.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD…
Apollo-Ridge - For the Vikings the time is probably right for a move back down to Class A after struggling to a 2-5 record in Class AA Allegheny Conference play, and a 2-7 mark overall, extending their playoff drought to five calendar years. They’ve graduated a lot of skill, including quarterback Zack Long, and although Damon Blystone seems like a logical heir, though judging by the erratic performance of the 2011 offense, perhaps this team could use a clean slate.
The good news is there’s a lot of interest in the program, and there’s plenty of underclassmen hungry to prove themselves in 2012. Meanwhile, receiver Josh Reynolds, one of just three seniors on the unofficial roster, provides playmaking ability, and junior running back Lonny Wells can anchor the backfield. Having said that, this is a rebuilding project that won’t be completed in just one campaign.
Avonworth - With their number one quarterback and top receivers gone, the Antelopes will likely lean toward a more traditional offensive look in 2012. Running backs Jesse Zubik and Anthony Tomasino appear to be focal points, while fellow junior Dalton Day and senior Dan Coulter are likely to get their share of carries as well.
The burning question is, what kind of protection is that group going to get? The ‘Lopes graduated nine men up front, including key tight end Mike Giampole, and come into the season, unofficially, with just three senior linemen.
Perhaps the most significant addition is retired Steeler Chris Hoke, who joins their staff as its defensive line coach. Avonworth should return to the playoffs, but whether Hokie and company can coach up the revamped defense, and whether Matt Donovan–or whomever–gets comfortable at QB will determine how far it goes.
Leechburg - In order for the Blue Devils to crack the goose egg laid in 2011, the 2012 offense needs to manage more than the previous conference-low 58 points. Winning the war of attrition every Friday night would be a good place to start, and they have a lot of experience coming back on both sides of the line.
A key component will be senior tight end Jake Iellimo, who has shown the potential to separate from the block and be an effective receiver. He is one of six Class of ’13 players expected to return, but that group hasn’t shown us much to this point, so although Leechburg can break back into the win column, it should be at least another season before we start to see real improvement.
North Catholic - The Trojans took a small step backward last year, missing the playoffs by a painfully close margin, and they enter this year having to endure significant roster turnover. However, when looking at what the rest of the Eastern Conference is returning, 2012 could still be a bounce-back season for this school.
Probable QB Ryan Kirby has a pair of dependable receivers coming back in seniors Will Green and Shawn Tunstall, but look for North Catholic to be more of a grinding team. Losing dual-threat passer Brandt Gribbin hurts on multiple fronts, but Green can tote the rock, and the offensive line looks like it should be pretty solid.
If the defense grows from the good work it did for much of 2011, the Trojans could earn a home playoff game in 2012.
Northgate - The Flames will be experimenting with a new quarterback after capable Jon Girvin guided them to their first playoff appearance since 2003. Sophomore Johnny Camello enters camp as the favorite at that spot, while top running back Cody Walter will return following a promising junior season to lead the attack.
Returning to the postseason will be a daunting task for this program, which has yet to achieve consistency. With 18 seniors, several of them anchoring the line, this Northgate squad will be an experienced one, but it will not necessarily be a deep one. Its success will be predicated on team health, and on what kind of strides are made defensively.
Riverview – A porous defense made the Raiders fair game for pillaging last season, and with a number of seniors gone from both sides of the line, and a lot of inexperienced players fighting for jobs, things could get worse before they get better.
Corey Bickert got some reps in 2011 as a freshman, and the sophomore enters camp as the probable Week 1 quarterback. The funny thing is, he has a pretty reliable target in senior Tim Wagner, but Bickert himself might prove to be more effective on offense as a receiver. Either way, there is work to be done in just about every phase of the game for young Riverview.
Springdale - We’re all wondering how much damage the Dynamos can do this year, but first we’re waiting for them to find a new coach. Local legend Chuck Wagner retired at the end of last season, and not only will the newcomer be one of the most scrutinized new coaches in the WPIAL, he’ll also have a lot with which to work.
All-conference running back Sean Dugan, who finished fourth in Class A with 23 TD’s, returns to carry the offense, while fellow senior Jacob Hellman probably steps into the starting quarterback role. This team has the potential to play some real smash-mouth football with a rich underclass helping the seniors man the offensive and defensive lines, and Dugan and Kyle Rodgers leading a fierce linebacking corps.
Given their team toughness and watered-down competition, the Dynamos, at first glance, look like a strong conference title favorite.
West Shamokin - Is this the year the Wolves break their WPIAL record 44-game losing streak? We hope so. Such ignominy is certainly not good for the image of either party, and the persisting rumors of leaving District 7 for major sports don’t help, nor does the fact that resources have been cut (a co-op with Elderton High School ended last fall).
What does help is playing down in 2012, and returning a relatively young roster that has already gained experience. Sophomore tailback Zac Horner could emerge as a team leader, and backfield buddies Blake Copenhaver and Brady Corman could be helpful. But to put it politely, the defense also has to execute better; their best effort of last season was a 29-point yield to Neshannock in Week 1.
Wilkinsburg - Although they finished 2011 on a positive note, the Tigers’ most likely objective in 2012 will be not to fall into the same trap as Leechburg and West Shamokin. All their top guns on offense and eight seniors in all have graduated from a team not particularly deep in the first place.
This season, on the whole, will be a learning experience for the Tigers. Eight seniors will also lead this year’s varsity squad, with sophomore Robert Guilledge appearing as the early favorite to take over as quarterback, and it’ll be up to the returnees to digest the lessons learned last fall.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)