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“Mr. High School Sports” – Quick Outs: Class AAA Big Nine Conference Outlook

Dorian Johnson

Belle Vernon senior offensive tackle Dorian Johnson will be one of the most sought-after recruits of the year after reopening his commitment to Penn State. (Photo credit: Jim Ference/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

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By Matt Popchock

(mpopchock@kdka.com)

On the night of Friday, August 31, the 107th season of WPIAL football shall begin. 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, shifting our attention now to Class AAA and looking at the Big Nine Conference. This section may have expanded, but it remains doubtful that the dominance of the conference by Thomas Jefferson will be challenged like it was in 2011.

The Jaguars did not enjoy the same runaway success to which they’ve become accustomed, which could revert to normal this year when looking at roster turnover throughout the conference. Forever fascinating is the struggle for the remaining three playoff berths.

Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:

A QUICK LOOK BACK:

*-West Mifflin: 6-1, 9-2

*-Thomas Jefferson: 6-1, 7-4

*-Chartiers Valley: 4-3, 5-5

*-Belle Vernon: 4-3, 4-6

Trinity: 4-3, 5-4

South Park: 3-4, 4-6

Elizabeth Forward: 1-6, 2-8

McGuffey: 0-7, 0-9

*-West Mifflin entered playoffs as No. 4 seed; defeated Mars 21-8 in WPIAL Class AAA First Round, lost to Montour 31-7 in WPIAL Class AAA Quarterfinals.

*-Thomas Jefferson entered playoffs as No. 6 seed; defeated Greensburg-Salem 34-28 (OT) in WPIAL Class AAA First Round, lost to Knoch 31-9 in WPIAL Class AAA Quarterfinals.

*-Chartiers Valley entered playoffs as No. 12 seed; lost to Montour 35-14 in WPIAL Class AAA First Round.

*-Belle Vernon entered playoffs as No. 15 seed; lost to Franklin Regional 28-14 in WPIAL Class AAA First Round.

A QUICK LOOK AHEAD:

The most scrutinized player in the conference will be Belle Vernon senior offensive lineman Dorian Johnson, ranked as the No. 20 tackle in the country by MaxPreps. Johnson (6’6″, 275 lbs.) re-opened his earlier commitment to Penn State, and has been offered by Pitt, WVU, Notre Dame, Alabama, and Wisconsin, among numerous others in major East Coast leagues.

Whether or not the seniors taking over on offense can improve upon the inconsistency of the 2011 unit will determine if the Leopards can be a factor in postseason play. Meanwhile, sophomore running back Anthony Levis, who should get a lot more carries, represents the youth of this team, which could put it behind some of the other playoff-caliber teams in the Big Nine.

Ringgold, which comes over from the Keystone Conference, is another team with multiple seniors waiting to step up, but the Rams badly need to recalibrate their offense as well. Versatile quarterback Quad Law has graduated, and one could tell what a different team this was when he ran into health issues late last season. Don’t be surprised to see head coach Matt Humbert use junior signal-caller Chris Spahr, who gained marginal experience in 2011, in a similar role, while senior tailback Demetrius Louis will get a ton more carries.

Once again, expect them to chase Thomas Jefferson, a program that may not be a football factory in the same sense as Aliquippa or Woodland Hills, but, with its seemingly interchangeable parts, operates like one. It’s hard to fathom many teams that fine-tune toughness in the off-season the way this one does, and the Jaguars, featuring junior lineman Angelo Natter (6’2″, 210 lbs.) and senior all-conference center Pat Hall (6’1″, 230 lbs.), will be real tough to beat up front.

TJ will rely upon the power running of junior Jake Farrell and sophomore Austin Kemp, and look for senior receiver/defensive back Zach Schademan to be an impact player on both sides of the ball. If the Jags can shore up their pass defense, this could be the start of another long streak of district semifinal appearances, and beyond.

The team that played David to their Goliath in 2011 was West Mifflin, the first to defeat TJ in conference play since “Mr. High School Sports” was still in college. With 15 seniors on the move, the Titans are much more unproven this year, though they will have great leadership on offense when they put the ball in the hands of senior quarterback/defensive back Derrick Fulmore.

He was integral to that upset of Thomas Jefferson, bursting onto the scene with 700 yards passing and another 600 on the ground as a junior. West Mifflin’s status will depend upon how much help Fulmore gets, and if the defense, which yielded 11.3 points per game in 2011, can continue to perform at the same high level.

Trinity, on the other hand, failed to reach the playoffs despite a respectable finish to 2011, during which they earned a quality win over West Mifflin. Defensively the Hillers were a sharp contrast, allowing over 24 points per game, and that’s the first thing that needs to change under new head coach Ryan Coyle. Look for senior Kyle Dugan and junior Pat Frey to share the workload in the backfield, while senior QB Jason Vankirk is coming off a ten-touchdown, three-interception campaign. If the Hillers can play more fundamentally sound, they’ll challenge for a playoff spot.

The challenge is much steeper for Albert Gallatin after trying times in the Keystone Conference. Their objective is to grow as a team in any way they can, and try to snap their double-digit losing streak as early as possible. Junior running back Collin Smith will be their primary weapon on offense. Laurel Highlands, a team more notorious for airing it out, is also coming over from that league. But the Mustangs might switch to a more balanced look in 2012 unless junior QB and new starter Raphael Cannon lives up to his surname.

For Uniontown, another Keystone Conference castoff, quarterback Xavier Ellis and fellow junior Tristan Sandrosky will try to provide balance and success after a bad run for the Red Raiders. Elizabeth Forward, which took its share of lumps before graduating two quarterbacks, is also struggling to find its way on offense entering the new season. Dual-threat junior quarterback Ryan Wardropper, who gained valuable experience as a sophomore, is a possible solution.

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)