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 Interstate Conference in Class AA. The most prominent and rancorous rivalry is the one shared between Greensburg Central Catholic and Jeannette, which fell just short of a district championship in 2011. Despite a surprising coaching change at GCC, the Centurions could follow in the footsteps of the Jayhawks in 2012.
Per biennial realignment, Washington has entered the conference and should challenge for a playoff spot, while Southmoreland, with unique leadership on offense, is trying to finally punch its ticket to the postseason for the first time in decades.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK:
*-Jeannette: 8-0, 12-1
*-Greensburg Central Catholic: 7-1, 10-2
*-Mount Pleasant: 6-2, 6-4
*-East Allegheny: 5-3, 5-5
Southmoreland: 3-5, 4-6
Waynesburg Central: 3-5, 3-6
Yough: 2-6, 2-7
Charleroi: 1-7, 2-7
Brownsville: 1-7, 1-8
*-Jeannette entered playoffs as No. 2 seed; defeated Burrell 46-14 in WPIAL Class AA First Round, defeated Shady Side Academy 35-14 in WPIAL Class AA Quarterfinals, defeated Seton-LaSalle 40-21 in WPIAL Class AA Semifinals, lost to Aliquippa 14-7 in WPIAL Class AA Final.
*-Greensburg C.C. entered playoffs as No. 5 seed; defeated Ford City 24-3 in WPIAL Class AA First Round, defeated Ellwood City 18-15 in WPIAL Class AA Quarterfinals, lost to Aliquippa 35-0 in WPIAL Class AA Semifinals.
*-Mount Pleasant entered playoffs as No. 9 seed; lost to Washington 30-14 in WPIAL Class AA First Round.
*-East Allegheny entered playoffs as No. 14 seed; lost to Seton-LaSalle 48-12.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD:
Brownsville - The Falcons lost their top tailback, but they gained a lot of experience during an otherwise uninspiring campaign last year. A lot of the underclassmen who played up front should now be in a position to make this team tougher, though points will come at even more of a premium. Senior quarterback Brandon DeCarlo will return to lead the offense, and look for receiver/running back Isaiah Spencer to be his chief target.
Charleroi - The Cougars will also make climbing out of the basement a priority in 2012, and, like Brownsville, they were young at a number of positions last year. Similarly, their number one running back has graduated, which might mean even more pressure on dual-threat senior quarterback Eric Johnson, who amassed over 1,400 all-purpose yards to go with 12 touchdowns. Stronger fundamental defense is needed for this team to improve.
Greensburg C.C. - Unfortunately Muzzy Colosimo won’t be around to coach one of the better teams this school has fielded in recent memory. A two-pronged ground attack led by 1,100-yard rusher Jordan McRae and senior Zach Guiser will strike fear into the hearts of opponents, but the real reason is that all-conference defensive back Guiser, an Akron recruit, is a fixture on a defense that led the section with 12.3 points allowed per game in 2011:
The senior class is voluminous and can make a difference at multiple positions. If the Centurions keep their backfield healthy, and if that defense, once again, elevates its play down the stretch, they could get back to Heinz Field.
Jeannette - Hosting Greensburg Central Catholic in prime time isn’t Jeannette’s biggest concern right out of the tunnel; first the Jayhawks have to replace Demetrius Cox, the heartbeat of their long playoff run in 2011. We might see them return to a more grass-roots approach with senior fullback Jordan Edmunds coming off a 900-yard season in which he also starred at linebacker on a defense that allowed 20 points or more on only two occasions.
Even without Cox, there is reason to believe the Jayhawks will improve defensively. Seth Miller is an all-conference selection who will help with pass protection, and the line is not only mostly intact, but a year older. If Jeannette gets consistent quarterback play and continues controlling the ball well, this could still be a championship squad.
Mount Pleasant - A couple years ago the Vikings made a surprise run to the conference title, and although we’re not making any promises about the 2012 squad, they are particularly impressive along the line with junior Eric Klejka and senior Ricky Crowley having earned all-conference nods in 2011. If Ryan Gumbita improves his accuracy and plays a bigger role in the offense, the senior signal-caller could make Mount Pleasant a tough out. For the Vikings to sustain success, the defense needs to grow up and match that toughness.
Southmoreland - We thought 2011 would be the year the Scotties, sans playoffs since the Pirates’ last world championship, would finally break down the door. We have no qualms with eating our words, but we have none with making the same bold prediction for 2012, either. Junior Dakota Datz, who threw for over 1,700 yards and scrambled for roughly 700 more, is arguably the most capable quarterback in the Interstate Conference. If Southmoreland can figure out how not to be a one-man band, this will be “the year.”
Senior running back Tyler Ramsey needs to boost his own yardage to balance the offense, though perhaps the real reason behind the Scotties’ previous collapse is the fact the defense let them down. Southmoreland still isn’t particularly deep on that side of the ball, making it the ultimate x-factor.
Washington - Although the Little Prexies come over from the Century Conference into a crowded playoff race, expect them to hit the ground running with a deep backfield and senior quarterback Josh Wise, whose style compares to that of Dakota Datz. Junior tailback Shai McKenzie, who finished in the Class AA top ten in rushing and scoring with 1,200 yards and 19 TD’s, will be a primary weapon, though the youth of the offensive line could prove counter-productive. Defensively Washington remains an athletic bunch, so if this team gets tougher, it could throw a monkey wrench into the conference title race.
Waynesburg - In 2011 this team could pile up points. It just couldn’t prevent them. With most of its top skill players gone, execution on offense could become an even bigger issue for the Red Raiders, who still have to worry about shoring up their “D.” They graduated 14 seniors, which approaches half the active roster from last year, so the focus needs to be on fundamentals and staying healthy. Junior quarterback Bo Hampson will have to demonstrate his ability make plays with both his arm and his legs.
Yough - The Cougars will also take a basic approach with the ball this season, as senior running back Christian Williams is coming off a 1,000-yard campaign. Hopefully, with at least three seniors on the line at most times, the sledding isn’t as tough for Williams. The more the offensive and defensive lines grow, the more likely Yough can push for a playoff spot, especially if junior quarterback Tyler Donahue comes into his own and minimizes the turnovers after throwing for over 1,100 yards as a sophomore.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)