By Matt Popchock
On the night of Friday, August 31, the 107th season of WPIAL football shall begin. Practices are 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, moving up to Class AA and focusing our attention on the Century Conference. We can already feel the brotherly love…well, sort of. Two siblings are playing for two different teams who should challenge for playoff spots, and possibly more, this season.
The logjam in the standings is usually fun to watch in this section week to week, and even the downtrodden teams have interesting storylines. When Cornell folded its football program after last season, Quaker Valley absorbed all its remaining players, so perhaps this very unique windfall could bolster the struggling squad?
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK:
*-Seton-LaSalle: 7-0, 11-1
*-Washington: 6-1, 8-3
*-South Fayette: 5-2, 7-4
*-Steel Valley: 3-4, 5-5
Keystone Oaks: 3-4, 4-5
Burgettstown: 2-5, 4-5
Quaker Valley: 2-5, 3-7
South Allegheny: 0-7, 1-9
*-Seton-LaSalle entered playoffs as No. 3 seed; defeated East Allegheny 48-12 in WPIAL Class AA First Round, defeated South Fayette 21-13 in WPIAL Class AA Quarterfinals, lost to Jeannette 40-21 in WPIAL Class AA Semifinals.
*-Washington entered playoffs as No. 8 seed; defeated Mount Pleasant 30-14 in WPIAL Class AA First Round, lost to Aliquippa 36-6 in WPIAL Class AA Quarterfinals.
*-South Fayette entered playoffs as No. 11 seed; defeated Beaver Falls 24-14 in WPIAL Class AA First Round, lost to Seton-LaSalle 21-13 in WPIAL Class AA Quarterfinals.
*-Steel Valley entered playoffs as No. 16 seed; lost to Aliquippa 44-7 in WPIAL Class AA First Round.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD:
Burgettstown - The viability of this team will depend on the success of senior John Dugas, one of the top all-purpose backs in the conference. Eight linemen, including all-conference honoree Artie Wilkins, have graduated, and the Blue Devils need one of their unproven quarterbacks to step up and seize the reins.
In 2011 Burgettstown allowed over 22 points per game, and it ended its season by dropping three in a row to playoff-bound teams, including a pair of shutouts. This year the schedule appears a bit more balanced. In any event, this senior class will be held largely responsible with bolstering that defense.
Keystone Oaks - The Golden Eagles have flown within bird’s-eye view of Heinz Field in recent years, only to have their wings clipped, and in 2011, they did not land gracefully. With the elimination of Washington, which moved back to the Interstate Conference as part of the district’s biennial realignment, the playoff picture in the Century Conference has reopened, so 2012 looks like a good time for the Eagles to spread their wings again.
Matriculating Matt Buckley makes the offense more one-dimensional, so the play of new QB Andy Hromoko is an x-factor. At least, despite the loss of top receiver Ricky Rogers, who was ruled eligible to transfer to Gateway, there is still another capable playmaker in receiver/defensive back Corey Sevacko. Furthermore, KO can still KO its competition with a powerful running game led by John Beveridge and Dale Klobichur, who ran for over 1,100 yards and 10 TD’s as a junior. The schedule sets up well for a strong finish by Keystone Oaks as long as it can survive the start.
McGuffey - The Highlanders limp down to the Century Conference from the Class AAA Big Eight Conference (now called the Big Nine, but more on that later) nursing a ten-game losing streak. Fortunately they return a group of players who should learn from their growing pains, as many of the underclassmen gained experience early in their varsity careers.
One of those individuals is QB Nathan Whipkey, who got a lot of snaps as a freshman, and has a more seasoned backup in Dylan Fuller. Fellow sophomore James Duschi is coming along at tailback, and linebacker Brent Blacharczyk is a strong leader on defense. Don’t expect the playoffs this year, but look for the Highlanders to make progress.
Quaker Valley - As previously mentioned, one program was dissolved into another during the off-season, but exactly how much will the Cornell castoffs help the 2012 Quakers? QV inherits a balanced mix of seniors and underclassmen from the defunct Raiders, but none of them have a ton of varsity experience, so it’ll be up to the established starters to lead them out of the doldrums.
Senior quarterback Burke Moser will try to build on a junior season that saw him throw for over 700 yards and seven TD’s, but left his accuracy with much room to improve. He’ll be handing off to sophomore tailbacks Jared Vescio, younger brother of graduated star Jordan Vescio, and Aaron Cunningham. Quaker Valley graduated its top receivers, so it will need a good running game, along with better tackling by its defensive front, in order to step forward.
Seton-LaSalle – These Rebels have one cause: getting to Heinz Field. With an explosive offense that should be able to overcome substantial changes to the offensive line, this team can overcome the sting of lopsided playoff losses to end the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Senior quarterback Luke Brumbaugh, who earned all-conference honors as a junior while throwing for 12 TD’s and over 1,200 yards, has come a long way in that time, and he could be the top signal-caller in the classification.
The aerial assault will need to remain effective to offset the graduation of tailback Kevin Hart, but Pitt recruit Scott Orndoff can provide protection and a valuable pass-catching option. The Rebels ranked third in Class AA allowing just over ten points per game, so if the defense, led by linebacker/running back Nick Sywyj, can take the next step forward, Seton-LaSalle will be a front-runner in 2012.
South Allegheny - What’s left of the Gladiators now that tight end Jesse James, their most recognizable player, is at Penn State? Well, they still should be pretty solid along the line, but they need to stay healthy on both the offensive and defensive fronts in order to stay out of the Century Conference basement this season.
We’ve already told you South Allegheny only won one game in 2011, but we should point out it lost each of four games by one possession. If the team can bank that experience, it could challenge for a playoff berth, but it also needs leadership at multiple positions. Senior quarterback Tym Burkholder needs to pick up the slack while a young group of running backs tries to deliver better results.
South Fayette - Like Seton-LaSalle, the Lions have a Brumbaugh at the trigger, and they also have a Pitt recruit who is one of the top players in the WPIAL at his position. While standing in for injured starter John Lerda, Luke’s freshman brother Brett threw for seven scores and over 600 yards, performing valiantly in defeat during their playoff meeting. His chief target is Toledo-Rocket-turned-Panther Zach Challingsworth, who finished in the district’s top ten in receptions and totaled 700-plus yards to go with ten TD’s.
Defensively South Fayette only graduated three linemen from a deep roster, so this should be a very stubborn team up front, which has set them apart from the pack recently. Plus, the speed of Challingsworth gives it a shut-down defensive back. Mark the Sept. 28 meeting with Seton-LaSalle (at Baldwin) on your calendars, because the Lions could pose the biggest threat to the defending Century champs.
South Park - Also playing down from the Big Eight in 2012 are the Eagles, who once won a WPIAL championship–to say nothing of their eventual 2005 state title–out of this league. These Eagles, however, may be a little out of their league here in the immediate future, mainly because their offense sputtered in 2011, averaging just over ten points per game, and they don’t have much coming back.
The top returnee is quarterback Nick Yobbi, whose objective must be to increase accuracy and decrease turnovers. Fellow seniors Carter Grote and Brandon Kmonk will be his primary targets. With a 2012 sophomore class of nearly 30, and a junior class also in double digits, the future of the program at least looks brighter than the present.
Steel Valley - They have lost their two top rushers from 2011, and they leaned heavily on that part of the offense, so the Ironmen have a lot to figure out as they try to scramble back toward the playoffs. This means more work for senior quarterback Patrick O’Malley, and for a re-tooled group of linemen that performed up-and-down for much of last season.
One intriguing aspect of Steel Valley is, in fact, the receivers with which O’Malley will likely play. Juniors Derek Taylor and tight end Brenon Thrift got some playing time as sophomores and will have to be dependable in order to keep the offense on the field while the defense rebuilds.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)