WEXFORD, Pa. (93-7 THE FAN) — Friday looks to be a rigorous start for visiting Mount Lebanon, which has one of the toughest schedules in the Commonwealth. This year, however, Art Walker might say the same about his Tigers.
Three-time WPIAL Class AAAA champion North Allegheny (7-0, 16-0 in 2012) will host the Blue Devils (7-1, 8-3 in 2012) at Newman Stadium for a 7:30 non-conference kickoff. But it won’t be the same North Allegheny.
Yes, the Tigers enter 2013 with a No. 3 statewide preseason ranking from MaxPreps. No, they have not lost to a WPIAL opponent since falling to arch-rival North Hills in the 2010 regular-season finale, a streak of 30 games.
But as if the proverbial bulls-eye on their back couldn’t be any broader, they must replace one of the greatest senior classes in WPIAL football history–33 players in all.
Having said that, Walker isn’t afraid to tackle what might be his greatest challenge since inheriting the program from Jim Rankin in 2005. He won’t let his remaining players be, either.
“It’s no different from what the staff went through went I started here,” Walker recalled. “We had a small senior group. We started over with some things, [introduced] new terminology. Every team’s going to go through growing pains.
“We had a great run the last three years with some great kids. But it’s their turn now.”
This past training camp was, more or a less, a meritocracy for NA, and the past week has been the same. As of publication, Walker had not yet issued us his probable starters, including his new quarterback.
Senior Cage Galupi (6’2″, 175 lbs.) and junior Jeff Clemens (6’2″, 200 lbs.) dueled for the job over the summer.
“He’s stepping up, being a leader out there, and showing guys how it’s done,” junior linebacker Layne Skundrich said of Clemens.
At their scrimmage against Penn-Trafford last Friday, Clemens did show a little more accuracy, but there’s something to be said for the experience of Galupi.
“I think me and Jeff both know we’re rooting for each other, and we’re going to work hard,” he said. “We want the best guy to play, and we want to put the team in the best position we can.”
“Every year, no matter how many guys you’ve got coming back, you’re still starting over. Some years, you’re starting from further back than the previous year. We’ll coach as hard as we can, and put our guys in the best situation we can,” Walker said.
Galupi spent the last couple years picking the brain of Mack Leftwich, who led the district with 3,331 yards and 45 touchdowns before committing to UTEP after his senior season.
“He was real good about talking to me. I definitely asked a lot of questions,” Galupi said after the scrimmage. “He was a good player, and a smart player. I made it a point to soak up as much as I could.”
However Walker configures his offense, they’ll both have a great athlete in Elijah Zeise to target. At 6’2,” 190 lbs., with his speed, there was mutual interest when he committed to Pitt in the off-season.
“My role is definitely going to increase. I’m ready for that,” said Zeise, who caught 23 passes for 677 yards and seven TD’s, and is ranked the No. 12 overall prospect in the state by 247Sports. “Right now we’re just trying to build some experience with the rest of our guys. That’s pretty much the big thing. We have enough talent.”
North Allegheny boasted the top offense in the classification last year, averaging nearly 42 points per game and leading the WPIAL in total yardage. Finding the awesome balance it had a year ago is unlikely in the immediate future, but what hasn’t changed is how effectively this team can run the ball.
Sean Idowu registered 407 yards and four TD’s as a backup in 2012, and he put up nearly eight yards per carry. Fellow senior Isaac Weaver impressed in the Penn-Trafford scrimmage, and Josh Bergman could have a breakout year after scoring seven touchdowns and averaging 6.7 yards per carry as a sophomore.
“They all have experience, they all know what they’re doing. Each does certain things better than the other, but they’re all solid,” Walker said.
Despite the fact senior Nick James is their only returning starter on the offensive line, Galupi feels, as long as he plays, he’ll be comfortable.
“[Assistant] Coach [Mike] Buchert does a great job preparing our line every year,” he said. “I’m confident he’d have everyone else ready to go.”
They’ll also be called upon to stabilize what should still be a capable defense. It led Quad-A in 2012 by allowing under nine points per game, and Skundrich (5’11”, 195 lbs.), who made a team-best 96 total tackles last year, is coming into his own.
“The games he played in last year were pretty big, so we expect a lot out of him this year,” Walker affirmed.
Skundrich is well aware of the star power Mount Lebanon, the No. 15 team in the state per MaxPreps, will bring to “The U.” The Blue Devils, like NA, will look to gain ground on the ground, powered by future Division I lineman Alex Bookser, and if they can set up the pass effectively, it makes Penn State commit Troy Apke a dangerous receiver.
“They’ve got two really good guys, so we’ve got to be prepared for the pass and the run,” Skundrich said. “They’re going to blitz, they’re going to defend the deep pass well, so we’ve got to be ready.”
“They’ve got a couple guys up front, and one in particular who is great,” Walker agreed. “Apke is a great talent at wide receiver. They’ve got some blue-chip guys, and we’ve got to be ready to answer. It takes 11 guys.”
Once they develop chemistry, the radically revamped Tigers believe they can continue to command respect throughout Quad-A, even as Lebo will come to town fighting for the same.
“After we lost all those those starters, we had to start from scratch,” Skundrich said. “We’re picking it up, mixing and matching, but I think we’ve got all 22 ready to play for Friday.
“Our goal is to go 1-0 every week,” Zeise said. “Hopefully that puts us in another championship, and we want to make another run at states. But it’s going to be a long road.”
For the time being, that road still goes through North Allegheny.
(Contact me at email@example.com and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)