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, shifting our attention to Class AAAA and one of the byproducts of biennial realignment in the WPIAL, the Southeastern Conference. Merging teams from the Great Southern and Big East Conferences, this could rival the Parkway as the most talented from top to bottom in District 7.
History says there’s going to be one playoff-caliber team in this new conference that doesn’t make the playoffs. The race for the five, and possibly six, available spots will put the eventual winners through the ultimate blue-collar test, with several of the most reputable programs in Quad-A history suddenly thrust together.
Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:
*Despite the increased stiffness of the competition, will “B-A-L-D” finally “win, win, win” behind its effective running game? Senior tailback Dorian Brown, coming off a junior campaign in which he ranked fifth in the classification with 1,200 yards and scored 11 TD’s, will inevitably draw college attention, and, in fact, he’s already received offers from several mid-major schools.
In 2011 the problem with the Highlanders was they simply couldn’t finish enough drives, but Doug Altavilla should be more comfortable after starting at quarterback as a freshman, and these young offensive and defensive lines seem to have serious potential. Typically a doormat, Baldwin, this time, fascinates us as a possible playoff team going forward.
*Will Jim Render get another shot at a fifth WPIAL title? With 354 wins, the most in district history and third-most in state history, he must groom senior Pete Coughlin, who engineered an amazing playoff upset of Central Catholic last fall, to replace fleet-footed Dakota Conwell at quarterback, and he must find new power sources for his ground attack. All-conference lineman Austin Park will be a dependable teammate for Coughlin, but the Panthers have gone through heavy transition up front and on the back end of their defense, which allowed the second-fewest points in Quad-A last year. USC has a long road back to Heinz Field but should remain a tough out come November.
*Led by new head coach Mike Melnyk, will these be the same blue-collar Blue Devils we saw under Chris Haering? The reputation of Mount Lebanon won’t change, but with Luke Hagy gone, the focal point of their offense has to, and senior running back Tim Briercheck is the right one for that job. Despite the grassroots strategy this team has tried in the past, don’t be surprised if Lebo airs it out a little. Tyler Roth enters his senior season at QB, and he has a junior receiver in Troy Apke who is starting to attract D-1 attention. Ross is an asset on defense, and both lines still look good, so Mount Lebanon should be in the mix.
*Which interchangeable parts will lead football factory Woodland Hills back into the championship picture? George Novak returns for his 35th season with a relatively unproven squad by his side, though there is still proven talent on defense. Senior lineman Jawan Turner and linebacker Alex Beasley made all-conference in 2011, a year that saw the Wolverines allow just over 14 points per game. Once junior tailback Ron Brown gets comfortable with increased responsibilities, Woody High should be just fine. Penn Hills, another former Big East Conference member, will also be at the mercy of its running game until it is more sure of its QB situation. New coach John Peterman will give Aaron Bailey most of the carries and trust his experience linemen to wear down opponents.
*Which Washington County team will finish stronger? Canon-McMillan, overhauling its offense, will welcome a clean state in 2012 under Tim Sohyda. Sophomore offensive lineman Alex Paulina has already earned an all-conference nod, providing a good foundation for that change. Peters Township also has a rugged interior, and a capable junior fullback in Cody Sheetz while the Indians rebuild their offense, not to mention an experienced QB in R.J. Pfeuffer. Meanwhile, Plum is another team in desperate need of an offensive identity, and senior running back Jake Digulio hopes to provide one.
*Can Bethel Park put the spark back into its rivalry with Mount Lebanon? The Black Hawks graduated an outstanding senior class, but they have another one ready to step into the starting lineup. Quarterback Sean Seavy, who got a taste of varsity action in 2011, will be one of those lynch pins. Bethel Park, with hard work and better tackling, can compete for a playoff berth, but with any transition comes growing pains.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)