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High School

“Mr. High School Sports” — Which Defending WPIAL Champion Will Repeat?

By Matt Popchock
Terry Swanson

Aliquippa tailback Terry Swanson runs against Washington in last year’s WPIAL Class AA Final. (File Photo: Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — All good things must come to an end. Unfortunately, this includes one of the most exciting stories in the history of WPIAL football.

That’s right, kids…it’s bold prediction time for “Mr. High School Sports,” and here it is:

A state-record 63-game winning streak, the longest in the nation, will ultimately come to an end for the Clairton Bears.

Speaking as someone who, in the past, has been warned by bosses about making predictions, I really hope I’m wrong about that one. Anyone who hasn’t privately cheered for the small South Hills school in the past five years simply doesn’t appreciate what high school football means here in western Pennsylvania.

Tom Nola continues to stave off any and all retirement speculation, and with him coaching, Clairton will always have a chance. But a handful of Class A teams have gained ground on the Bears, who must move on from arguably the greatest senior class in WPIAL history.

But please, before I and 93.7 The Fan weekend host Paul Zeise tell you our predictions for the 2013 season, including which team(s) we believe will end Clairton’s epic run, bear with me and my history lesson for just a minute.

In 1989, while Upper St. Clair, Aliquippa, and Steel Valley successfully defended their crowns, Clairton dethroned two-time Class A king Wilmington to end a championship drought of roughly 60 years. Since the “modern” era of WPIAL football, so to speak (four classifications), that is the closest it has come to a clean sweep for the defending champs.

In 2012, Clairton and Aliquippa built upon dynasties, while West Allegheny in Class AAA and North Allegheny in Class AAAA survived brutal schedules and perilous playoff matchups to hoist trophies above their collective heads at Heinz Field.

West Allegheny and North Allegheny will be well-peopled and well coached once again. The Tigers, under Art Walker, look to have a capable, multi-pronged running attack and a young linebacker, Layne Skundrich, playing ahead of the curve to lead their defense. The Indians have Bob Palko’s wildcat, and key athletes Chayse Dillon, Tory Delmonico, and Armonde Dellovade back to run it.

But they, like N.A., also have to replace in the neighborhood of 30 seniors–important ones, too. Plus, predicting the Parkway Conference isn’t much easier than playing Powerball, unless you’re predicting one of its teams will reach the championship round; that has happened seven years in a row.

Central Valley, featuring eventual D-1 prospect Jordan Whitehead, and Blackhawk, with imminent D-1 quarterback Chandler Kincade, each could be that team. Montour and New Castle are capable of improvement this year, which could affect postseason matchups.

Elsewhere in Class AAA, Thomas Jefferson is completing a quick turnaround, and, led by quarterback/linebacker Chase Winovich, who has committed to Michigan, you’d be hard-pressed to bet against one of the most consistent playoff participants of the century.

In Class AAAA, if J.J. Cosentino gets comfy in Terry Totten’s offense, Pittsburgh Central Catholic could be the one to take team-to-beat status from N.A. within its own conference, to say nothing of the rest of the Quad-A field. Outside the Northern Eight, the Southeastern Conference looks like…well, the Southeastern Conference…the “other” one.

Each of its top four teams has realistic championship aspirations. Mount Lebanon, for one, has a great offensive line led by Alex Bookser, who will star for whichever college lands him, and receiver Troy Apke is a proven playmaker.

Tight end/defensive lineman Rori Blair, who has overcome personal tragedy, is also one of those, and Upper St. Clair got a huge physical and emotional boost when he was granted one more year of eligibility for medical reasons.

Pitt commit Mike Grimm should provide good pass protection for Levi Metheny, who is coming to his own as the quarterback for Bethel Park.

Woodland Hills boasts a tough defense and an electrifying running back, Miles Sanders, who has barely scratched the surface of how good he can be.

By the way, did I mention Gateway, despite the distraction of a coaching change, returns key starters on both sides of the ball, including Montae Nicholson and Ricky Rogers, two of the most threatening receivers in Quad-A?

The gap between the haves and have-nots is a wee bit wider in both Class A and Class AA, which is why I think Clairton and Aliquippa each stand the best chance to repeat.

Which one(s) will actually pull it off? I say, bet it all on Aliquippa, and although Clairton will also earn another title shot, bet on three new champions:

Dravon Henry will be great for Aliquippa. The Quips, to a man, will be great.

Quarterback Aaron Matthews and running back Lamont Wade, among those charged with the task of rebuilding the Bears, will also be great. This particular November, however, someone else will simply be better.

Check back this week for full Week 1 coverage, and listen to “The Fan High School Roundup” this approaching Saturday, 7:00-8:00 A.M., for a complete rundown of all the season-opening action in the WPIAL and City League.

(Contact me at mpopchock@kdka.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)