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 with a series of rapid-fire previews, focusing this time on the Tri-County South Conference in Class A. The most dominant team in the history of that section, along with a typical playoff challenger, are both gone, so, to the casual observer, biennial WPIAL realignment has sucked the fun out of following it.
However, with several teams now having a chance to follow in the footsteps of Frazier and end playoff droughts, there may yet be a story for which to root. Monessen and California may have vanished, but a new galaxy of stars will shine on Friday nights.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK…
*-Beth-Center: 8-0, 8-2
*-California: 6-2, 7-3
*-Frazier: 6-2, 6-4
*-Monessen: 6-2, 6-4
Jefferson-Morgan: 4-4, 4-5
Carmichaels: 3-5, 4-5
Mapletown: 2-6, 2-7
Geibel: 1-7, 1-8
West Greene: 0-8, 0-9
*-Beth-Center entered playoffs as No. 6 seed; lost to Fort Cherry 33-14 in WPIAL Class A First Round.
*-California entered playoffs as No. 12 seed; lost to Avonworth 28-16 in WPIAL Class A First Round.
*-Frazier entered playoffs as No. 15 seed; lost to Sto-Rox 69-25 in WPIAL Class A First Round.
*-Monessen entered playoffs as No. 8 seed; lost to Springdale 65-30 in WPIAL Class A First Round.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD…
Avella - So much has been made of this tiny Washington County school’s efforts to maintain a program, it’s almost impossible not to privately root for the Eagles. Can they avoid another winless campaign in 2012? Switching conferences definitely helps, as does the fact their manpower has stabilized, and an overwhelming majority of the 2011 roster returns.
The challenge for Ryan Cecchini, or for any other coach who would step into this situation, as he enters his second season, is teaching command of fundamentals, and teaching a group of kids conditioned to failure how to succeed. He’ll turn to quarterback Eric Richards and tailback Johnny Campbell, who will not be without competition in camp, to provide leadership to the rest of the senior class.
Bentworth - The Bearcats (who, by the way, were the last to lose to Avella, in Week 9 of the 2010 season) also have an immense amount of room for growth coming off a one-win season, but they, like the Eagles, will be among the more experienced teams in the TCS, and they have a coach in Lou Rood who has a history of methodically turning last-place teams into winners.
Junior fullback Mason Shumaker will be counted on to bring consistency to the offense, especially considering Bentworth all but abandoned the passing game last season. It should be a tougher team up front with all but two of their linemen coming back. It had better be, because until the ‘Cats do a much better job getting off the field, the name of the game is progress, not postseason.
Beth-Center - Maintaining dominance won’t be easy for the Bulldogs, who have suffered graduation losses throughout their starting offense, though they feature senior tailback Cody Durant, one of the more dynamic players in the Tri-County South, who amassed over 700 all-purpose yards and 11 TD’s as a junior. If junior QB Gino Faieta can handle the passing of the torch by Sal Faieta, this could still be a dangerous team.
The Bulldogs averaged 42 points per game last season, making them the second-highest scoring bunch in Class A, while the defense was equally consistent, allowing less than nine points per game. The latter has some big cleats to fill, despite remaining strong along the line, but Beth-Center is probably the best bet to erase the reputation this conference has of not getting it done in the playoffs.
Carmichaels - The Mighty Mikes couldn’t stop turning the ball over last year, but junior quarterback Brandon Lawless is a year wiser, and this team has a busy backfield that could lead the offense until Lawless is a little more sure of himself. Junior running back Brennan McMinn had a very strong sophomore year.
Unfortunately, Carmichaels graduated a lot of leadership on defense, a unit that was already very Jekyll-and-Hyde throughout the 2011 season. It’ll have to swing that turnover ratio in the opposite direction and do a better job getting off the field in order to challenge for a playoff berth.
Frazier - For head coach Mike Steeber, the honeymoon might not be over yet. One of the feel-good stories of 2011 was the Commodores being playoff-bound for the first time since 2002, but a number of key players who made that magic are gone. However, he has options to replace Rock Vargo at quarterback, and whoever does so will have decent protection.
Junior Dakota Hixson can make an impact at multiple positions, and Charles Manack, a very effective receiver as a sophomore, also has some skills under center, or so the depth chart says. Senior wide-out Jaime Fell can help on both sides of the ball, and junior Chaise Bertocci will strive for a big year at tailback/linebacker. Can this group learn from the example set by the previous senior class?
Geibel - This is another program that has struggled for survival, and, to make matters more difficult, has graduated most of its varsity roster. The growing pains will likely continue in 2012, so the objective for the Gators is to rebuild and hopefully build upon their one-win effort.
Senior running backs Trey Holmes and Martin Berish will probably lead the offense until an obvious winner emerges in the quarterback battle. In the meantime, don’t be surprised to see a number of freshmen and sophomores get regular playing time, so for now it looks like Geibel will have to celebrate any victory, big or small, it can get until the new starters mature.
Jefferson-Morgan - This team reminds us of the timeless sports axiom: it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. The Rockets were headed toward the playoffs, but burned up in re-entry, losing their last three games, the toughest part of their schedule, via mercy-rule shutout. They were inexperienced at several positions in 2011, so a second consecutive collapse does not appear likely.
There will be a lot of pressure on junior quarterback Tyler Bowman to improve after going through a full year as a regular, and senior tailback Dustin Conti can play the position if he falters, if not be a valuable pass-catching back. This team is deep along the line and has a healthy mix of “new” and “old,” so as long as it can take advantage of the softer schedule, Jefferson-Morgan should be a playoff team.
Mapletown – The Maples unofficially return 11 linemen, so they could win many battles in the trenches. Whether they win many games is another story. Most of last year’s skill players have graduated, though the offense struggled mightily, so perhaps that’s a blessing in disguise.
Senior quarterback Kevin Ridgley is the preseason favorite to hold the reins, and given the lack of true QB depth entering camp, among other factors, his job might be the only safe one prior to opening kickoff.
West Greene - Feeling the weight of a 14-game losing streak, the Pioneers are hoping the experience their returning starters gained last year will help alleviate some of that pressure. There may be wholesale changes in the backfield, but the line is still pretty young, and the roster is still pretty voluminous considering the size of the school. Junior quarterback Dalton Wildman needs to be a more effective leader, and the defense needs to play fundamentally better in order to snap the skid.
The telling stat of their season was similar to that of Jefferson-Morgan’s: three consecutive shutout losses to punctuate a rough slate. So 2012 will be a test not just of the maturity of the players, but of the maturity of the coaching staff to help them clear mental and physical hurdles. Fortunately, realignment being what it is, there will be winnable tests for this group as it tries to grow.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)