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 Northern Eight Conference in Class AAAA, which features quite the conundrum at the top. The defending Quad-A champs are once again the team to beat, but now they must deal directly with a team capable of dethroning them.
Given the consolidation of this classification (and Class AAA) to three conferences instead of four, the fact that at least five Northern Eight squads will make the playoffs should help some of its struggling teams. Meanwhile, a longtime conference member that toiled in mediocrity for a long time could be ready to take the next step.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
A QUICK LOOK BACK:
*-North Allegheny: 6-0, 14-1
*-Erie McDowell: 4-2, 8-3
*-Seneca Valley: 4-2, 8-3
*-Shaler: 3-3, 5-5
North Hills 2-4, 4-5
Pine-Richland: 2-4, 4-6
Butler: 0-6, 2-7
*-North Allegheny entered playoffs as No. 1 seed; defeated Fox Chapel 53-20 in WPIAL Class AAAA First Round, defeated Seneca Valley 35-10 in WPIAL Class AAAA Quarterfinals, defeated Gateway 21-17 in WPIAL Class AAAA Semifinals, defeated Upper St. Clair 28-21 (OT) in WPIAL Class AAAA Final; defeated State College 40-14 in PIAA Class AAAA Quarterfinals, lost to Central Dauphin 23-20 in PIAA Class AAAA Semifinals.
*-Erie McDowell entered playoffs as No. 6 seed; defeated McKeesport 42-7 in WPIAL Class AAAA First Round, lost to Upper St. Clair 21-14 in WPIAL Class AAAA Quarterfinals.
*-Seneca Valley entered playoffs as No. 9 seed; defeated Penn Hills 30-13 in WPIAL Class AAAA First Round, lost to North Allegheny 35-10 in WPIAL Class AAAA Quarterfinals.
*-Shaler entered playoffs as No. 12 seed; lost to Gateway 52-13 in WPIAL Class AAAA First Round.
A QUICK LOOK AHEAD:
The two-time WPIAL champions are still the most complete team in this conference, but North Allegheny has its work cut out competing with Central Catholic. Their meeting Oct. 12 at Newman Stadium will be an emotional one not just because of Art Walker’s ties to both schools, not just because it could decide the Northern Eight championship, but it could also be a harbinger of things to come at Heinz Field.
N.A. will win because it will continue to win the war of attrition with an offensive and defensive line anchored by Michigan recruit Pat Kugler, son of Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler and No. 11 interior lineman in the country according to MaxPreps.
Kugler will protect fellow senior Mack Leftwich, who, shortly after transferring from the midwest, made his mark as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the WPIAL. He led Class AAAA with over 2,100 yards through the air in 2011, scrambling for 700 more, and scoring 14 times on the ground. All-conference receiver/defensive back Brendan Coniker will be his chief target in what could once again be the highest-scoring offense in the classification.
Just like senior tailback Alex DeCiantis will be a centerpiece in North Allegheny’s attack, Central Catholic will lean upon promising junior Luigi Lista-Brinza to pick up where Damion Jones-Moore left off. Lista-Brinza ran for five TD’s and over 500 yards in limited duty last year.
Despite the tremendous team leaders lost to graduation, the Vikings are deep at multiple positions, and can match up pretty well with any Quad-A club up front. The play of two transfers could determine whether Central can mount a serious challenge to N.A. Junior running back Niko Thorpe has come over from Shaler to give Terry Totten another option in the backfield, and if new quarterback J.J. Consentino can grasp Totten’s offense with ease after leaving Kiski Area, it’s championship or bust.
Meanwhile, growing pains weighed on N.A.’s arch-rival, North Hills, more than usual in 2011. Unfounded rumors persist that 2012 could be the last of Jack McCurry’s 35 years on the sideline, but in any event, with 275 wins (fourth-most in WPIAL history) on the books, you might say playoff droughts tend not to last long under his watch. The Indians don’t appear to have the weapons to give McCurry one more district title, but they should return to the postseason on the strength of their typically gritty defense, which allowed the second-fewest points in the conference last year. Jordan Blackmon, who averaged 18 yards a grab and scored five TD’s as a junior, is one to watch on both sides of the ball.
The team that officially knocked North Hills from playoff contention was Seneca Valley, which turned heads with its most successful season since 2003. We’ve sung the praises of North Allegheny and Central Catholic, but, to the credit of Don Holl and his returning starters, if there’s a third horse in this derby, the Raiders are it. Senior quarterback Jordan Brown finished second in Quad-A with 2,100 passing yards last fall, averaged five yards per carry, accounted for over 20 touchdowns, and might finally get the attention he deserves.
Fellow senior Forrest Barnes rumbled for over 1,100 yards and finished third in Quad-A scoring with 19 TD’s last year. Seneca Valley can be as dangerous as any team on offense, so the next step is executing better on defense and learning how to out-tough the more established winners in this classification.
At the other end of the spectrum, look for Shaler and Butler to rebuild in 2012, though the Golden Tornado have a longer way back. Interest in the program clearly remains high, despite their struggles, and senior running back Bob Vernick should have a productive season. The Titans will have a tough time dealing with their roster turnover in the interim, as running back Wade Barkey, part of a 22-man senior class, will help lead the revised offense under new coach Chris Seigle.
Finally, did the window of opportunity close for Fox Chapel after its rare playoff berth in 2011, and will Pine-Richland climb through it? The Foxes will be playing with a new quarterback and a younger offensive line; plus, their defense needs to improve considerably. Junior tailback Nigel Garnett can eat up big chunks of yardage as a runner and a receiver, and made all-conference as a defensive back. The Rams could improve in 2012 after a 1,000-yard campaign from all-conference running back Brock Baranowski. If they learned their lesson on defense, they could sneak into the playoffs.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)