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 Foothills Conference in Class AAAA, which has stayed chiefly intact through biennial realignment in the district. Furthermore, the WPIAL title candidacy of Gateway, which has dominated the conference for years, remains as strong as ever.
The pursuit of the Gators should be more fascinating with the consolidation of Quad-A into just three conferences, which means a fifth playoff spot has been made available. While Gateway has set the bar uniquely high, others dream of getting a rare taste of postseason play.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK:
*-Penn-Trafford: 6-0, 10-1
*-Gateway: 5-1, 9-3
*-McKeesport: 4-2, 6-4
*-Connellsville: 3-3, 5-5
Latrobe: 2-4, 5-4
Hempfield: 1-5, 1-8
Norwin: 0-6, 0-9
*-Penn-Trafford entered playoffs as No. 4 seed; defeated Bethel Park 21-0 in WPIAL Class AAAA First Round, lost to Gateway 34-9 in WPIAL Class AAAA Quarterfinals.
*-Gateway entered playoffs as No. 5 seed; defeated Shaler 52-13 in WPIAL Class AAAA First Round, defeated Penn-Trafford 34-9 in WPIAL Class AAAA Quarterfinals, lost to North Allegheny 21-17 in WPIAL Class AAAA Semifinals.
*-McKeesport entered playoffs as No. 11 seed; lost to Erie McDowell 42-7 in WPIAL Class AAAA First Round.
*-Connellsville entered playoffs as No. 14 seed; lost to Upper St. Clair 42-0 in WPIAL Class AAAA First Round.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD:
We sing the praises of the Gators because they once again feature the most imminent Division I talent and possible Division I talent on both sides of the ball. In addition, Gateway might be the most motivated team in this conference after longtime coach Terry Smith was nearly fired over the summer, and remains the center of a turbulent job situation.
Senior all-conference tailback Darin Franklin is ready for an encore after a junior season that saw him rack up over 800 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns, which put him among the Class AAAA top five in total scoring.
He’ll be running in front of tight end and Pitt commit Jaymar Parrish, another all-conference selection who will also bolster the defensive line. Quarterback and Arizona recruit Tom Woodson balances the offense after finishing 2011 with nearly 1,500 all-purpose yards.
Gateway was the least scored-upon team in Quad-A last year, and that defense, despite the fact 22 seniors are gone, it can still beat up opponents. Terry Smith could get that elusive ring after all, which would be nothing short of a feel-good story.
The most capable challenger to Gateway is still McKeesport, as the Tigers are ready to launch an aerial assault on the rest of the Foothills Conference. That thought seemed unthinkable when George Smith was still around, but Jim Ward has done a solid job groom senior quarterback and Akron recruit Ed Stockett, who tossed 17 TD passes and threw for over 1,700 yards, ranking third in Class AAAA in 2011. He’ll have almost a brand new starting offense around him, and when you consider over 30 seniors are gone, McKeesport needs to stay healthier than most in order to survive.
Penn-Trafford must also endure significant roster turnover to return to the playoffs. Senior quarterback Matt Arzenti will get help in the passing game from senior receivers Brian McDonough and Mike Cumberledge, but this will be a rebuilding year for the Warriors. Norwin is still going through this process, as senior running back Zach Tinsley is one of the few starters the Knights return with noticeable varsity experience, and former WPIAL champion Rich Bowen is going to enjoy working with senior running back/defensive back Joey DeFloria as he takes on the work-in-progress at Hempfield.
Meanwhile, after losing quarterback J.J. Consentino to an eligibility ruling, Kiski Area will move forward with senior Tim Ragan, and Altoona, another program still on the mend, will hand the reins over to senior Matt Dry, expected to see his first action as a starting QB. Don’t be surprised to see Ray Reitz experiment with a new quarterback either, even though Latrobe does return an experienced junior, Logan Carns. The Wildcats will try to mix it up with senior rusher Robert Vasinko, who could help them grab a playoff spot if the line play is consistent and if some of his teammates can learn from early varsity exposure.
Connellsville probably attracted a few closet fans en route to a 2011 playoff berth that ended a long streak of futility, and many of you are probably wondering if the Falcons, like Latrobe, can potentially be a fringe playoff team again. It’s going to be tough without a proven source of offense, but junior quarterback Jade Maher will give it his best behind an offensive line of mostly juniors.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)