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 Black Hills Conference in Class A. A lot of eyes are going to be on this one not just because it got tougher, but because the defending champion Clairton Bears enter the new season with four straight district titles, three consecutive PIAA crowns, and a nation-best 47-game winning streak, a WPIAL record, on the line. The longest winning streak in the history of the Commonwealth is 59, set by Central Bucks West 1997-2000. Another perfect regular campaign, followed by a record-tying fifth straight WPIAL championship, would break that record.
Monessen, California, and Bishop Canevin have come aboard, per biennial WPIAL realignment. This means that, excluding the brand new program at Imani Christian, only Serra Catholic and Carlynton have failed to make the playoffs out of the Black Hills Conference in each of the last two seasons. For some, this new schedule will be a test of character; for others, a death sentence.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK:
*-Clairton: 7-0, 16-0
*-Brentwood: 6-1, 9-2
*-Fort Cherry: 5-2, 7-4
*-Chartiers-Houston: 4-3, 6-4
Carlynton: 3-4, 5-5
Serra Catholic: 2-5, 2-7
Bentworth: 1-6, 1-8
Avella: 0-7, 0-9
*-Clairton entered playoffs as No. 1 seed; defeated Cornell 54-0 in WPIAL Class A First Round, defeated Springdale 34-20 in WPIAL Class A Quarterfinals, defeated Rochester 43-7 in WPIAL Class A Semifinals, defeated Sto-Rox 42-6 in WPIAL Class A Final; defeated North Star 44-0 in PIAA Class A Quarterfinals, defeated Sharpsville 30-8 in PIAA Class A Semifinals, defeated Southern Columbia 35-19 in PIAA Class A Final.
*-Brentwood entered playoffs as No. 7 seed; defeated Western Beaver 20-12 in WPIAL Class A First Round, lost to Sto-Rox 40-0 in WPIAL Class A Quarterfinals.
*-Fort Cherry entered playoffs as No. 11 seed; defeated Beth-Center 33-14 in WPIAL Class A First Round, lost to Bishop Canevin 16-6 in WPIAL Class A Quarterfinals.
*-Chartiers-Houston entered playoffs as No. 14 seed; lost to Bishop Canevin 27-23 in WPIAL Class A First Round.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD:
Bishop Canevin - It’s tough to get a feel for how close the Crusaders can come to replicating their recent magic. Practically every key offensive starter is gone, but the defense, led by senior all-conference linebacker Mike Dunn, remains deep, and it ranked second in the classification with just under eight points allowed per game in 2011.
Furthermore, with Bob Jacoby, a seasoned veteran maybe one of the more under-appreciated coaches in the area, at the helm, the bar will inevitably be set high. Whether or not that bar is cleared depends largely upon how well the new offensive starters transition to their jobs, and what kind of contributions senior Nico DiPaolo, the likely candidate to replace dual threat Bobby Gustine, can make.
Brentwood - In 2011 the only ones who could throw a wet blanket onto one of the hottest seasons this program has had in a while were the two best teams in WPIAL Class A. With the talent pool in the Black Hills running deeper now, getting back to the playoffs in 2012 won’t be easy, but the Spartans can survive the long journey.
They return tailback Justin Vickless, who, after finishing with over 900 rushing yards and 18 total scores as a sophomore, could develop into one of the most entertaining players in the classification. Senior Chris Shortley did some good things in his first year as starting QB, and both will be protected by one of the better lines in the conference. Brentwood probably won’t get out of Clairton’s shadow (who will?), but this looks like a solid under-the-radar team.
California - Now that the aptly named T.D. Conway has matriculated to that “other” California in Pennsylvania, only time will tell how many TD’s the Trojans can still score. They competition is stiffer in their new digs, and Malik Jackson will likely need time to get comfy as just a sophomore and the only other pure quarterback left on the roster approaching camp.
California will need to rely even more on its defense to seize control of games this season, and having senior Robert Kalbaugh out there for pass protection is a plus. Kalbaugh can catch passes from his own quarterback as well, not to mention spell the running backs. The Trojans can and will still run the ball with vigor, but there might be too much uncertainty on offense for them to make serious noise.
Carlynton - The Cougars must show a better command of fundamentals in order to challenge for a postseason berth, though they should be able to run the ball as well as any team in the Black Hills. Senior Nick Lang is coming off a 1,000-yard effort as a junior and was the team’s leading scorer in 2011, and their large junior class will help steady the line. They just need to find balance, having graduated quarterback Trevor George.
This program hasn’t had much to brag about in recent seasons, but it closed the last one with a victory at J.C. Stone Field against a difficult North Catholic squad. Carlynton opens with Fort Cherry, Canevin, and Clairton, so we’ll find out early on if that was a stepping stone for this group.
Chartiers-Houston - The first round of the playoffs remains this team’s Kryptonite, even though the Buccaneers, for the better part of the past decade, have been a consistently competitive program. Success in November and December is just as much about matchups as it is raw skill, but that’s exactly what Chartiers-Houston needs to replace on offense.
Fortunately the 2011 squad was still pretty young, and with so many options in the backfield, the Bucs should be able to run a healthy multiple-set offense. Defensively, linebacker Garrett Vulcano was a tackling machine as a junior, and could be one of the premier players at his position in Class A. His play, along with the steadiness of the offensive and defensive lines, which endured roster turnover, will factor into this team’s ability to exorcise its demons.
Clairton - Even four years and those aforementioned 47 wins later, the Bears remain as dangerous as ever. That’s because, once again, they have one of the most dangerous players in the WPIAL, slotback Tyler Boyd, who is being approached by over 20 Division I colleges, including local ones, to play defensive back. He led the district as a junior in rushing yards with an even 2,400 and touchdowns with 48, and he’s got the support of tailback Karvonn “Mud Puppy” Coles, who missed all of last season with a lower-body injury.
They both have plenty of capable protectors, and they are poster children for the phenomenal job Tom Nola has done molding these players over the years. You might also want to keep an eye on Titus Howard, a dangerous pass-catcher out in the open who can be a major disruptor on defense…and lest we forget, that unit allowed 78 points in 2011, making it the most proficient in the entire state.
The Black Hills may have gotten steeper, but we think there’s still a couple chapters left in this already amazing story.
Fort Cherry - The nest is empty, but head coach Tim Garry is hoping the same can not be said for his team’s playoff hopes. The Rangers lose quarterback Tanner and chameleon Corey Garry, the heart and soul of their offense, and will have to mount more of a grass-roots attack in order to stay alive this season.
Senior running back Tyreke Brown and junior Kolten Kobrys can provide a spark, and at least junior quarterback Matt Heslin has had a year or two to study the playbook. In the meantime, judging by the rest of the competition, old and new, Fort Cherry needs big-time leadership on defense in order to stay in games.
Imani Christian - Next Friday will mark the dawn of a new era, as the Saints head to Dormont Stadium to take on Canevin in their inaugural WPIAL football game. We know what Central Valley, a hybrid program, did in its first year of existence, and we know how far Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, another relatively new team, has come along in a short time. How soon can this private school, located in the greater Penn Hills area, follow in their footsteps?
The buzz from other fascinated observers is that Imani has some pretty decent athletes who are ready to make history and aim for more. Led by Terry Smith’s brother, head coach Harvey Smith, quarterback Khari Hicks and playmaking receiver in Eric Scott are already drawing collegiate attention; furthermore, they benefit from having played a full slate of exhibition games last year to get ready for 2012. Don’t be surprised if the new kid on the block hangs tough with some of the big boys.
Monessen - This used to be the one team in the Tri-County South Conference that most consistently separated itself from the pack, and when you look at the athleticism of the Greyhounds, it really seems like they’re the ones best suited to knock Clairton off their heavenly perch, or at least come the closest. Their meeting in Clairton on ROOT Sports Thu., Sept. 20 is must-see TV. Leading the charge is senior quarterback and WVU recruit Chavas Rawlins, who racked up over 1,600 all-purpose yards and 18 total TD’s in 2011.
Rawlins is working with interchangeable parts in that spread offense, and from his defensive back spot, he helps lead a defense that allowed under ten points per game in conference play last year, and senior linebacker Keith Davis is coming off an all-conference campaign. If Rawlins protects the ball better, and if the playoff seeding is more favorable this time, don’t sleep on these ‘Hounds.
Serra Catholic - The Eagles had a memorable run in 2007 that left them just one win shy of a state title, but since then they’ve had a difficult time recovering from their fall from grace. Perhaps it’s no coincidence after the coach of that team, proud alumnus Rich Bowen, resigned after the 2010 season, their good fortune went with him? Bottom line, whoever’s calling the plays, they need to score more; Serra fell victim to six shutouts in 2011.
They graduated 13 seniors from a roster just over 30 deep, so this project won’t be completed overnight. The most fascinating position battle in camp might be the one between sophomore quarterbacks Anthony Rosso, who got a taste of varsity play in 2011, and Zack Quattrane.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)