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 Midwestern Conference in Class AA. Last year the WPIAL champions in this classification came from the MAC, which isn’t anything new. It’s usually one of the toughest sections in the district. What is new is the fact that biennial WPIAL realignment has left it with eight teams.
This means that each member of this group will play two non-conference games instead of one, but it doesn’t mean that those jostling for playoff positioning will have any more breathing room. Beaver County is always particularly proud of its football, and once again, in 2012, several of these squads have much about which to boast.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK:
*-Aliquippa: 8-0, 14-1
*-Beaver: 6-2, 7-3
*-Beaver Falls: 6-2, 7-3
*-Ellwood City: 5-3, 7-4
Riverside: 4-4, 5-4
Laurel: 4-4, 4-5
New Brighton: 2-6, 3-6
Freedom: 1-7, 1-8
Mohawk: 0-8, 0-9
*-Aliquippa entered playoffs as No. 1 seed; defeated Steel Valley 44-7 in WPIAL Class AA First Round, defeated Washington 36-6 in WPIAL Class AA Quarterfinals, defeated Greensburg C.C. 35-0 in WPIAL Class AA Semifinals, defeated Jeannette 14-7 in WPIAL Class AA Final; defeated Moniteau 32-7 in PIAA Class AA Quarterfinals, lost to Tyrone 20-19 in PIAA Class AA Semifinals.
*-Beaver entered playoffs as No. 10 seed; lost to Shady Side Academy 35-21 in WPIAL Class AA First Round.
*-Beaver Falls entered playoffs as No. 6 seed; lost to South Fayette 24-14 in WPIAL Class AA First Round.
*-Ellwood City entered playoffs as No. 13 seed; defeated Freeport 33-26 in WPIAL Class AA First Round, lost to Greensburg C.C. 18-15 in WPIAL Class AA Quarterfinals.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD:
Aliquippa - A list of contenders in Class AA would be incomplete without the Quips, who have a realistic shot at back-to-back WPIAL championships after erasing the bitter taste of three straight setbacks with a drive that will be talked about for years to come. An old-school formula of downhill running and stubborn defense establishes them as the team to beat. In 2011 they tied for being the least scored-upon team in the classification, and junior Dravon Henry, now getting offers from Big East and Big Ten schools, had a breakout campaign:
Henry ranked fourth in Class AA with over 1,300 yards on the ground and in the top ten in scoring with 21 TD’s, and fellow junior Terry Swanson, along with senior Devon Walker, can give invaluable help in the backfield. Defensively Aliquippa is as formidable as ever with all-conference returnees Celo Chavis and Chris Ingram at linebacker after big junior years. If Malik Shegog can make a smooth transition to starting QB, it’s hard to imagine anyone stopping Mike Zmijanac from collecting another ring.
Beaver Area - The team that might present the greatest challenge to Aliquippa’s dominance of this conference is the Bobcats, even though they still haven’t gotten over that hump. Only 13 seniors have graduated from a roster as big as any in the WPIAL, so they still have depth at every position. Beaver tied the awesome feats of Aliquippa’s defense by allowing only 8.7 points per game in 2011, and it is in a position to run a ball-control offense similar to that of the Quips that punishes opponents physically.
Seniors Darian “Bubba” Bradley and Anthony Fidurski are ready for more responsibility in the backfield, and even though there will be a new man under center, he will be well protected. On the other side of the ball, Jeff Beltz has several pieces he can rotate at defensive back, and an all-conference linebacker in Jayme Tatko. As long as the question mark at quarterback is resolved early, the Bobcats have the potential to play late into the season.
Beaver Falls – Every time it looks like BF is ready to “FB” (fade to black), a new galaxy of stars rises under the tutelage of Ryan Matsook. We may have already analyzed the two best teams on paper, but these aren’t paper Tigers. The MAC title pursuit will remain at least a three-horse race because they, like the two aforementioned squads, will be particularly deep and strong in the trenches, and will be poised to play power football, at least until the uncertainty at quarterback disappears.
Junior Elijah Cottrill can fill that role, among others. His impact on the offense could go a long way toward determining how far Beaver Falls goes, while Damian Rawl, Rob Bell, and Marcus Cleckley share the carries. Beaver Falls will hurt from the graduation of Trey Hall in more ways than one; that leaves a big hole at linebacker, a hole that must be plugged by the seniors. But as long as the new starters show the same command of fundamentals, BF should be competitive again.
Ellwood City - What a revolution the Wolverines have made. In 2011 they won a playoff game for the first time since 1987, and they’ve got a group of young men ready to lead the team back to the postseason, which, before Don Phillips came aboard as head coach, seemed unfathomable. All-conference tailback Kyle Crawford won’t be replaced by any individual, but junior quarterback/defensive back Julian Cox was integral in Ellwood City’s upset of Freeport, and his athleticism will stabilize the offense.
The unofficial 2012 roster includes 12 seniors, six of them along the line. Hopefully for the Wolverines this marks the next step in their evolution: improving an average defense that allowed 22 points per game last year. If they can bring that number down, and if the supporting cast on offense takes some of the pressure off Cox, Ellwood City will cross the line separating pretender from contender.
Freedom - There’s a classic football proverb about finding the identity of an offense: if you have two number-one quarterbacks, you really don’t have any. Last year the Bulldogs just couldn’t establish consistency in the passing game, so they probably won’t be able to grow from a rough season until one of their returning seniors, Sam Beckey or Forrest Petcovic, takes charge.
Fellow senior Allan-Michael Conforti leads the running game, though Beckey can do his fair share of work outside the pocket. Freedom was particularly young in 2011, especially along the offensive and defensive lines, so the Bulldogs need to grow up there and protect the ball better (12 INT’s versus 14 TD passes last fall) in order to make tangible progress.
Mohawk - Not long ago the Warriors banged on the door of the postseason, but they’ve had a hard time recovering from the roster turnover of 2009-10. The resulting 14-game losing streak with which they enter the 2012 season can only end if senior quarterback Vince Menachino makes drastic improvements in terms of efficiency and execution, and junior tailback Shane McFarlane enjoys a breakout year.
Any small victory the defense can earn should be considered a positive. The positive strides made by that unit will be just as important as any made by the offense as this program tries to make a name for itself again. Eight seniors and ten juniors unofficially comprise the team, so perhaps youth will be less of a problem.
New Brighton - The Lions are another team that has had a difficult time distancing itself from the back of the pack. Their identity is a more traditional one, reliant on a steadfast running game spearheaded by senior Kellen Mackey, who ran for 11 touchdowns and nearly 800 yards as a junior. But they have growing up to do in all areas.
New quarterback Gabe Greco will try to pick up where team leader Michael Nevill left off, and he’ll have a more experienced line in front of him with five seniors and eight juniors returning. Every loss is a learning experience, and the fate of New Brighton depends on how much those older contributors have learned from the recent losing.
Riverside - A four-game winning streak to close out the 2011 campaign proved too little, too late for the Panthers, though it certainly speaks well to the development of team chemistry. If senior quarterback Devin Kelosky, who threw for 700 yards last fall and ran for 300, can improve his accuracy and find the end zone a little more often, it would push Riverside that much closer to a playoff spot in 2012.
The Panthers lose their top rusher, but senior Bob Gould can bridge that gap. An even bigger question is whether or not the defense, which showed flashes of excellence, will let them down again. There will be more experience along the defensive line this year, and when you’re playing amongst teams that live and die by the run, winning those battles of attrition makes a difference.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)