By Matt Popchock
On the night of Friday, August 31, the 107th season of WPIAL football shall begin. Scrimmages are about to get underway, and with 125 teams across 14 conferences and four classifications to discuss, it’s time to get excited.
We’re going to keep our preseason coverage going a series of rapid-fire previews, focusing this time on the Big 7 Conference in Class A. Rochester had been the traditional flag-bearer in that section for many years, but the tradition was broken in 2011 with the rise of Sto-Rox.
Thanks to biennial realignment, the playoff race in the Big 7 could be tighter this year, as the burgeoning program at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart arrives on the scene. Meanwhile, teams from Beaver and Lawrence Counties will battle for the final spots.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK…
*-Sto-Rox: 7-0, 12-1
*-Rochester: 6-1, 10-2
*-Western Beaver: 5-2, 5-5
*-Cornell: 4-3, 5-5
Neshannock: 3-4, 5-4
Shenango: 2-5, 3-6
Union: 1-6, 2-7
South Side Beaver: 0-7, 0-9
*-Sto-Rox entered playoffs as No. 2 seed; defeated Frazier 69-25 in WPIAL Class A First Round, defeated Brentwood 40-0 in WPIAL Class A Quarterfinals, defeated Bishop Canevin 12-10 in WPIAL Class A Semifinals, lost to Clairton 42-6 in WPIAL Class A Final.
*-Rochester entered playoffs as No. 4 seed; defeated Northgate 48-22 in WPIAL Class A First Round, defeated Avonworth 26-22 in WPIAL Class A Quarterfinals, lost to Clairton 43-7 in WPIAL Class A Semifinals.
*-Western Beaver entered playoffs as No. 10 seed; lost to Brentwood 20-12 in WPIAL Class A First Round.
*-Cornell entered playoffs as No. 16 seed; lost to Clairton 54-0 in WPIAL Class A First Round.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD…
Laurel - Playing down could prove a breath of fresh air for the Spartans, who were buried in the Midwestern Conference, one of the toughest in the WPIAL, in 2011. They graduated top running back Dylan Jones, to say nothing of most of their top linemen, but the schedule won’t be as brutal in 2012, which leaves the door at least slightly ajar.
This team still has a lot of options in the backfield, and it also has senior quarterback Brandon Ritchie, who had a full season to get comfortable with that job. The question is how much improvement Jerry Holzhauser can coax out of his defense, which allowed over 30 points on four occasions last year, along with one 28-point yield.
Neshannock - The heartbreak of last fall was probably palpable, as the Lancers fell just short of the last playoff spot out of the Big 7. Their defense put forth some pretty commendable efforts, but the offense let them down. If quarterback Michael Sanfilippo can learn from his junior season, and if his backfield brethren can run the ball more effectively, Neshannock could get over the hump.
The inexperience of the line is an x-factor. Returning to the trenches are mostly sophomores and a handful of juniors, so if that group can’t jell, it won’t matter what adjustments the offense makes. If that turns out to be the case, the defense will need to play at a higher, more consistent level in order to keep Neshannock in games.
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart - This relatively new program went from the predictable growing pains of year one, in which it struggled to manufacture one win, to already banging on the door of the postseason in year two, out of the Eastern Conference. This looks like it could be the year OLSH kicks in that door.
Bill Daniels has done a fine job building up enthusiasm, and senior running back Isiah Neely, its most identifiable player, returns. Neely will remain the focal point of the offense after totaling 22 touchdowns and over 1,500 yards, leaving him in the Class A top five in both rushing and scoring. The success of his supporting cast and the performance of this previously mediocre defense, especially against fringe playoff teams, will determine whether the Chargers get over the hump.
Rochester - The Rams will undoubtedly come into this season with heavy hearts after the shooting death of recently graduated running back De’Andre Moon. Still, this team has strong reason to believe it can rediscover the playoff success it is accustomed to, returning a senior class of 15 and a sophomore tailback, Preston Johnson, who has some people talking.
Quarterback Ben Richko took some steps forward as a junior, while sophomore Jaquan Pennington and junior Dante Marsick could provide balance out of the backfield. The real measure of whether or not Rochester can return to Heinz Field will be how much the defense improves. It allowed 15 points per game in 2011 but showed gashes in the postseason.
Shenango - This team constantly lost the war of attrition, and, as a result, lost a lot of games, but there’s a long list of returnees, so hopefully, for their sake, the Wildcats will simply remember 2011 as a learning experience, as opposed to the start of a playoff drought. One thing Shenango did not lose is its offensive diversity.
Ty Greer didn’t do much with his arm as a sophomore, but with most of his one-thousand-plus yards coming outside the pocket, he at least proved he can think on his feet; furthermore, whenever Ryan Mayo wants him to call a number besides his own, he’s got options. Bottom line is, this team has to do a much better job finishing drives–on both sides of the ball–in order to chase a playoff spot.
South Side Beaver - The Rams are trying to cleanse the bitter taste of a winless 2011 campaign from their mouths, and having senior quarterback Joe Magusiak, who topped one thousand yards last year, back at the trigger should help. But he threw just three scores against a whopping 16 interceptions as a junior, so that offense absolutely must protect the ball better to stay out of the basement.
Some valuable playmakers have graduated, and there are plenty of question marks on defense. But if you can’t run the ball, you can’t do much of anything else anyway, so if senior fullback Cameron McCoy can protect well and provide balance, South Side should crack that goose egg soon enough.
Sto-Rox - Most of the Vikings’ top talent has matriculated to Division I, and Ron Butschle, the man who guided them to a WPIAL Championship berth last year, has resigned for personal reasons. But new coach and former Butschle assistant Dan Bradley inherits a team led by junior quarterback Lenny Williams that can still challenge for another Big 7 title. Once upon a time, Williams enjoyed one of the finest seasons of any freshman in the WPIAL:
As a sophomore he threw for over 2,100 yards, ranking second in the district, and over 600 on the ground to go with 31 TD passes, which also ranked second. The challenge for Williams will be finding consistency and chemistry with a completely retooled offense. Fortunately Sto-Rox can still run, and remains very strong up front, as Josh Slappy and J.R. Anderson have evolved nicely, though the defense will be thinner at linebacker in 2012.
Their Week 9 visit to Rochester will probably decide the fate of the Vikings within the conference once again, and could serve as a long-term litmus test as well.
Union - Will the faithful at Socs Roussos Stadium have anything to cheer in 2012? There isn’t much talk of a playoff appearance coming off a two-win season, though maybe there should be, considering this fledgling squad loses only one senior from its entire 2011 roster and has a large junior class. Still, that group hasn’t yet done enough to prove itself under the lights.
The Scotties aren’t particularly deep up front, and the rest of their defense needs to get better in a hurry. But quarterback Joseph Salmen returns after putting up decent numbers as a junior, and he’ll have several familiar targets. In order to see progress, Salmen needs to be more accurate, and senior running back Drew Robinson needs to provide more of a spark.
Western Beaver - Getting back to the postseason might be a tall order for the Golden Beavers. Their Mister Everything, Dustin Creel, has gone on to Eastern Michigan, one of 11 seniors to graduate from a roster that wasn’t voluminous in the first place. Junior R.J. Rock is likely the new starting quarterback, with senior Zach Perry, who proved to be a capable backup runner last year, probably getting most of the carries.
The real problem is the linemen remain pretty lean and pretty young. The good news is, this group has a lot of room to grow, so if Western Beaver can take care of business against the bottom-feeders of the conference and sneak back into the tournament, that could be a good foundation for future success.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)