By Matt Popchock
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, focusing on the Parkway Conference in Class AAA, perhaps the toughest of them all. For six consecutive seasons at least one team from this section has reached Heinz Field, and quite frankly, we foresee 2012 becoming the seventh.
Who that mystery team–or, dare we postulate, teams–will be is an utter mystery, though with four of them, including the last two WPIAL champions, returning legitimate Division I talent, and one of them boasting maybe the top college prospect in all of western Pennsylvania, this postseason race will very truly be a marathon and not a sprint.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK:
*-Central Valley: 7-0, 11-1
*-Montour: 5-2, 12-3
*-Hopewell: 4-3, 7-4
*-West Allegheny: 4-3, 5-5
New Castle: 4-3, 5-4
Blackhawk: 3-4, 5-4
Moon: 1-6, 2-7
Ambridge: 0-7, 1-8
*-Central Valley entered playoffs as No. 1 seed; defeated Laurel Highlands 60-20 in WPIAL Class AAA First Round, defeated Ringgold 44-28 in WPIAL Class AAA Quarterfinals, lost to Montour 21-14 in WPIAL Class AAA Semifinals.
*-Montour entered playoffs as No. 5 seed; defeated Chartiers Valley 55-20 in WPIAL Class AAA First Round, defeated West Mifflin 31-7 in WPIAL Class AAA Quarterfinals, defeated Central Valley 21-14 in WPIAL Class AAA Semifinals, defeated Knoch 42-14 in WPIAL Class AAA Final; defeated Grove City 25-21 in PIAA Class AAA Quarterfinals, lost to Bishop McDevitt 41-32 in PIAA Class AAA Semifinals.
*-Hopewell entered playoffs as No. 10 seed; defeated Indiana 41-13 in WPIAL Class AAA First Round, lost to Franklin Regional 24-21 in WPIAL Class AAA Quarterfinals.
*-West Allegheny entered playoffs as No. 14 seed; lost to Knoch 28-7 in WPIAL Class AAA First Round.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD:
One play, one yard, one score was all that separated the Warriors from a stay of execution, and, possibility, a shot at defending their district crown in 2011. This year one man could put Central Valley’s offense on his shoulders with one very large group of college recruiters watching. Senior athlete Robert Foster (6’2″, 185 lbs.), the highest-scoring returnee on the 2012 varsity squad, registered over 1,000 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior, and enters the new season ranked as the No. 15 overall high school prospect in America according to MaxPreps.
Foster, who has been offered by at least a dozen schools ranging from Pitt, Penn State, and WVU to Alabama, Florida, and Oregon, will be the focal point as the Warriors try to develop stability at the quarterback spot. Central Valley ranked second in Class AAA last year with a scoring average over 38 points per game, and it’s going to be real strong again with sophomore playmaker Jordan Whitehead ready to contribute, and flexibility elsewhere on the field. If the younger defensive line can maintain the pace set by all the outgoing seniors, Central Valley could play for another Triple-A title.
The team that unseated them suffered a big loss when it was revealed lineman Tyler Haddock might miss the entire regular season with a lower-body injury, but Montour will remain one of the toughest teams defensively in the classification after yielding just 17 points per game a year ago and overwhelming opponents down the stretch. Defensive back Devin Wilson earned all-conference honors as a junior, and as many as ten seniors could conceivably play up front.
Unfortunately, there are multiple question marks on offense with Dillon Buechel and Julian Durden, one of the most dynamic duos in the WPIAL, now gone. Fortunately Wilson, who is getting Division I offers in both football and basketball, can also be a leader on that side of the ball after racking up 12 TD’s and 900 yards receiving last fall. The news of QB Ty Greer’s transfer from Shenango being approved should help as well.
In this conference there are invariably good teams who don’t make the playoffs, and Chartiers Valley, whose 2011 season was bookended by losses to Montour, will have to fight the Spartans, among others, for playoff positioning as biennial WPIAL realignment corrals the Colts into the Parkway Conference. The toughest part of their schedule is the second month of the season, which should allow new quarterback Jordan Joseph an opportunity to get comfortable. Joseph already has a little bit of experience filling in for injured Wayne Capers as a junior.
Senior tailback Mike Boulous, who topped 600 yards in 2011, can provide a downhill running game. How much traction it will have remains to be seen with the youth on the offensive line. Char’ Valley must execute better overall on defense in order to extend its run into November.
One team likely to shift into rebuilding mode is Hopewell, which must replace a WPIAL legend, if there is such a thing as “replacing” PIAA all-time rushing leader Rushel Shell. He was part of a 2011 senior class over 20 deep, so despite the fact the Vikings will have physical maturity at a lot of positions with this year’s also voluminous senior class, they won’t have many of their starters back. Junior running back Adam Murray must rise to the challenge behind all-conference blockers Nick McCracken and Acantay Patton.
West Allegheny went through those same growing pains last season, but in 2012 they could be back to the familiar role of challenge for a conference title. Up front the Indians might be one of the toughest tribes in Class AAA with an average lineman height over six feet and an average weight at that position over 270 pounds. The difficulty of their 2011 schedule caught up with them, but West A’s defense really came into its own early, and will be better this year. Meanwhile, the line can open holes for senior running back Nick Halbedl, who averaged over six yards per carry as a junior.
Don’t sleep on Blackhawk either. Junior quarterback Chandler Kincade is healthy again after an injury interrupted a 500-yard season that saw him complete two-thirds of his attempts, and he has taken a year off basketball to concentrate on fine-tuning his game on the gridiron. Senior running back Cole Chiappialle could also provide a spark for a team that just graduated a significant number of seniors at skill positions. The Cougars can win games with their more experienced defense, and they can win them with head coach Joe Hamilton. His 333 victories are second-most in WPIAL history, and after 47 years he still finds ways to keep his teams competitive.
New Castle, though it could score with enough regularity to pile up wins, just couldn’t get out of its own way on defense, which led to a postseason miss in 2011. The Red Hurricane should still be pretty solid in the trenches, but the linebackers and DB’s have a lot to prove, and they have a very proficient quarterback to replace. Senior running back Jalen Holmes could break 1,000 yards this season, and he’ll have to provide leadership for New Castle to get back to the playoffs, at least until the passing game gets into a rhythm.
Ambridge and Moon will continue their respective quests for respect. Junior tailback Kody Nichi is poised to provide big numbers for the Bridgers after an impressive first season as a varsity regular, while senior quarterback Caleb Jakiel, who threw for over 1,000 yards in 2011, will try to reinvigorate the Tigers’ offense.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)