By Matt Popchock
Besides slight alterations to its playoff format, the most noticeable change brought on by the biennial realignment in the WPIAL is that the district now has much more control over non-conference scheduling. This basically means the number of non-conference games has dwindled across the board.
So when these kids run out of the tunnel tonight, they had better be ready to play because many teams have difficult tests within their conferences right at the outset of this new football season. Here are some of the big games in Week 1:
Woodland Hills at Upper St. Clair – Southeastern Conference
(Coverage begins at 7:00 P.M., with kickoff at 7:30, on NewsRadio 1020 KDKA; Lanny Frattare and Bob Orkwis have the call, and you can check out our live blog at 937thefan.com.)
These two perennial heavyweights still pack a punch, but they will both look very different when they step into Jim Render’s ring. The battle of wits between he and George Novak, two legendary western PA coaches, is tantalizing, as is the war of attrition likely to take place. Woodland Hills must knock quarterback Pete Coughlin off his game early, while the Upper St. Clair linemen need to reclaim their fearsome reputation of yesteryear and contain new starting tailback Ron Brown. Whichever defense hits hardest wins.
North Allegheny at Mount Lebanon – 7:30 – Non-conference
Not only could this be a nice early playoff preview, it’s a good test for the Blue Devils, who are in search of a new identity on offense, while trying to maintain their unique physical style. The Tigers, one of the toughest teams up front perhaps in the entire state, will show no mercy as they try to attack Lebo with balance. Mount Lebanon’s objective is to take away the run and make Mack Leftwich beat them with his arm, while N.A. will try to out-muscle powerful running back Tim Briercheck.
Mars at Franklin Regional – 7:00 – Northeastern Conference
If the Planets are to have a shot at the conference title, they probably need to pull this upset right away against a likely WPIAL championship contender. Franklin Regional will go after Mars with Dane Brown, arguably the top running back in the classification, and this game hinges on the ability of the visitors to minimize whatever damage he does. Meanwhile, the Panthers need to prepare for a two-pronged ground attack spearheaded by Connor Biggs and Jason Lozzi, who could come into his own this season.
Blackhawk at West Allegheny – 7:00 – Parkway Conference
Two very strong playoff probables meet at Joe P. DiMichela Stadium for a game that marks the return of rehabilitated junior quarterback Chandler Kincade, who showed excellent command of the Cougars’ offense before getting banged up last fall. West Allegheny has one of the toughest groups of linemen they will see all year, so Blackhawk needs to be on its game up front. To that point, the Indians need to develop chemistry early among their new starters and get running back Nick Halbedl going before Blackhawk’s stubborn defense can find its legs.
Ford City at Shady Side Academy – 7:30 – Allegheny Conference
We said at the beginning of the season that at least three, and possibly four, teams could legitimately contend for a piece of the crown in this conference, and two of them oppose each other right away. Look for bruising back Devon Wilyard to get a lot of carries, and look for Ford City’s defense to carry the Sabers to the postseason in 2012. Shady Side needs dual-threat quarterback Jared Brevard to get involved, and the Indians, whose own defense is probably overlooked, need to block hard, tackle harder, and keep this game low-scoring.
Washington at Greensburg C.C. – 7:00 – Interstate Conference
This is the first game the Centurions will play without the guidance of 2009 WPIAL title-winning coach “Muzzy” Colosimo, and they’re playing it against an athletic bunch of Little Prexies who have the tools to return to the playoffs after moving from the Century Conference. Shai McKenzie, one of the premier running backs in Class AA, will lead Washington’s attack, which meets one of the best rush defenses in the classification. The play of versatile quarterback Josh Wise is an x-factor, while the Prexies must limit GCC’s brutal backfield duo, Jordan McRae and Zach Guiser.
Clairton at Chartiers-Houston – 7:30 – Black Hills Conference
The Bears head to Washington County with a 47-game win streak, the longest active run in American high school football, in tow, as well as the leading scorer in the WPIAL from 2011, slot receiver Tyler Boyd. Furthermore, the Bucs were one of Clairton’s nine shutout victims last year, and except for some adjustments along the line, the reputation for that defense hasn’t really changed. Chartiers-Houston at least gets to showcase its all-conference linebacker, Garrett Vulcano, against some Division I-caliber talent.
Imani Christian at Bishop Canevin – 7:30 – Black Hills Conference
History will be made at Dormont Stadium tonight when the Saints, who got their start out of a private school based in the Penn Hills area, make their official WPIAL football debut. We use the word official because Imani played a year of exhibition (out-of-district) games to get ready for 2012, and it has several athletes, including quarterback Khari Hicks, who could put this program of the map rather quickly. The new-look Crusaders need to bottle up that passing game, and Canevin, another new member of this conference, needs lots of big plays from new starting QB Nico DiPaolo.
“Mr. High School Sports” picks: Clairton, Imani Christian, Greensburg C.C., Ford City, Blackhawk, Franklin Regional, North Allegheny, Upper St. Clair.
For more WPIAL football content, check out all our conference previews on the high school page at 937thefan.com.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)