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, focusing now on the Allegheny Conference in Class AA. Even amidst biennial realignment in the WPIAL, this league tends to stay pretty much the same, especially in terms of its unpredictability. What we can predict is, just like last fall, there are at least three teams who could seriously challenge for the conference title.
Not all these kids will get the same national attention as others in western Pennsylvania, but there’s still a lot of individual talent in the Alle-Kiski area on display in 2012, and a lot of people eager to see if less heralded programs like Deer Lakes and Summit Academy can overcome history.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK:
*-Shady Side Academy: 6-1, 8-3
*-Freeport: 6-1, 7-3
*-Burrell: 5-2, 6-4
*-Ford City: 5-2, 6-4
Summit Academy: 3-4, 3-6
Apollo-Ridge: 2-5, 2-7
Deer Lakes: 1-6, 2-8
West Shamokin: 0-7, 0-10
*-Shady Side Academy entered playoffs as No. 7 seed; defeated Beaver 35-21 in WPIAL Class AA First Round, lost to Jeannette 35-14 in WPIAL Class AA Quarterfinals.
*-Freeport entered playoffs as No. 4 seed; lost to Ellwood City 33-26 in WPIAL Class AA First Round.
*Burrell entered playoffs as No. 15 seed; lost to Jeannette 46-14 in WPIAL Class AA First Round.
*-Ford City entered playoffs as No. 12 seed; lost to Greensburg C.C. 24-3 in WPIAL Class AA First Round.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD:
Burrell - Last year the Buccaneers just didn’t quite have the maturity of a championship team, but in 2012 this dynamic, physical bunch could ride the back of one of the top two-way players in Class AA to the Allegheny crown. All-conference senior running back/linebacker Cole Bush scored 24 times as a junior, ranking second in the classification, and amassed over 1,000 yards while giving the receiving corps another option.
What this offense needs is balance, so if new starting QB James Liput did his homework and has a big senior year, it could be even more powerful than the unit that averaged 29 points per game in 2011. Furthermore, as Bush contributes on the other side of the ball, the defense can’t continue leaving the offense in a position where it has to win shootouts, but depth and experience are on Burrell’s side.
Deer Lakes - Unfortunately for head coach Todd Hazlett, the emotional high did not last; after finally ending a 40-year playoff drought in 2010, the Lancers were hit very hard by graduation, and crashed back to Earth in 2011. Junior quarterback Josh Plocki will try to kick-start an offense that never really got its motor going last year, much of which had to do with some of those graduation losses in the trenches.
DL graduated six more linemen, but returns three seniors and seven juniors, unofficially, at that position, so there should be more stability there. Meanwhile, senior Cody Keenan can contribute at multiple positions, while the rest of the defense is generally on the older side, and, hopefully, for Hazlett’s sake, that growth spurt leads to a growth spurt in the win column.
East Allegheny - In the Interstate Conference the Wildcats flew under the radar and into the 2011 postseason, brief though their stay was, and in 2012, they could be competitive once again. Junior quarterback Kyle Whipple showed promise as a sophomore, throwing for 11 TD’s against just five INT’s, and over 800 yards, while seniors Kalik Marshall and Shawn Adair can spearhead the backfield.
Where East A really needs to improve is throughout its defense, which averaged 28 points allowed per game in 2011, and with a group of eight seniors returning along the line, including stalwart Mike Russo, significant progress can be made. Furthermore, Adair could prove invaluable at defensive back, a position of relative youth on this team, if it returns to the playoffs.
Ford City - Traditionally the Sabres are one of the most skilled defensive teams in the WPIAL that nobody talks about, at least not everyone outside Armstrong County. Their defense took a small step backward in 2011, but a senior class 16 deep could guide them back to the conference championship before the window of opportunity for that group closes.
Defensive back Devon Wilyard is an integral part of the “D,” and he’ll be the focal point of Ford City’s “O” after racking over 800 yards on the ground, with senior signal-caller David Lattanzio throwing to set up the run. Fellow senior Ben Young will spell Wilyard and also lead a pack of linebackers that could potentially lead the Class AA pack in run-stopping and overall execution. The Sabres allowed just over 13 points per game last fall, and as long as they get back to their pattern of out-toughing opponents and forcing turnovers, this team will thrive.
Freeport - Expect to see perhaps the hungriest team in the Allegheny Conference run onto the field next Friday night at Kittanning. Not only has John Galliot already done a phenomenal job rebuilding this program, he’s got one of the toughest squads in the section coming back, and they’ll be out to prove last year’s playoff upset was a fluke. In fact, if you really want a game to watch, you might want to head up 28 North (or down 28 South, depending on where you are) Oct. 5 when the Yellowjackets visit Burrell in a game that could decide the conference title.
All-conference senior running back Damon Smith embodies that toughness, but quickness is another of his strong points, as demonstrated by some of his tackles, and by his 1,300-plus rushing yards, which ranked fourth in Class AA, and his 20 touchdowns. He’ll have a lot of help from fellow senior and dual-threat QB Brendan Lynch, who finished 2011 with over 1,000 offensive yards and 14 TD’s. Decorated linebackers Alec Stivers and Josh Wisniewski return to anchor a defense that allowed just 11 points per game. If they can stay healthy, the Jackets will be hard to beat.
Kittanning – One of the two teams playing down from the Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference, the Wildcats will be experimenting with new schemes on offense while they adjust to their new schedule. It only topped the 20-point mark twice in 2011, so any change made by new coach Frank Fabian is probably welcome, especially if it helps senior quarterback Kevin Barnes put more points on the board than his predecessors.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a playoff-caliber football team at that school won’t be, either. Kittanning remains young up front, and young on defense. Fortunately, interest in the program remains high, and the roster is voluminous, so this may be an arduous process for Fabian, but he’ll have plenty of help along the way.
Shady Side Academy - Coaches love to crow about teamwork, and rightfully so, but it’s amazing how much one player can be so crucial to some teams. Fleet-footed quarterback Reggie Mitchell was truly the straw that stirred this particular drink, and the Indians have a tough task ahead in replacing him. Junior Jared Brevard, who matched Mitchell’s passing yardage and finished with over 1,300 all-purpose yards, will give it his best shot.
The competition at the top of the Allegheny Conference is much stiffer this year, so Shady Side needs to get similar production from Brevard and hope that the defense grows stronger in order to remain a part of it. As many as a dozen seniors, including Joe Bray and Josh Loper, could appear on this defensive front, which held five of its last six regular-season opponents under ten points. If junior running back Dennis Briggs breaks out, on top of all this, SSA could still grab at least a share of the crown.
Summit Academy - Our goal here is to inform the uninformed, so before we analyze the 2012 Knights, let us qualify our ensuing statements. The Summit Academy is a reform school for adjudicated youth based in the Butler County town of Herman, where the roster changes from year to year, and, in some cases, from week to week. Obviously, in the bigger picture, that change is good for the school, but naturally, team chemistry can suffer, which is probably part of why Summit has yet to make a playoff appearance since joining the WPIAL.
Despite the struggles of the defense, tight end/running back/defensive back David Carter provided steady leadership as a junior, and he’ll be behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the entire conference. For that matter, it’s a very senior-laden team in general, but again, it needs to stick together, and many more players need to follow Carter’s example in order for the Knights to be relevant.
Valley - From an entertainment standpoint, the fact the Vikings are playing down after two years in the GAC is a good thing, because it renews the rivalry between themselves and Burrell, once one of the biggest in Class AA. But Valley, under new coach Chad Walsh, has some serious catching up to do to break a 22-game losing streak, and catching a few more balls this season would be as good a place as any to start.
Senior quarterback Chaz Cheatham will assume that responsibility, and his experience is especially important considering the amount of freshman and sophomores that composed a bulk of the 2011 roster. Be prepared to see a lot of those kids plugged into the lineup as Walsh tries to teach better fundamentals and puts an emphasis on defending the open field with his 3-3-5 scheme.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)