By Matt Popchock
So what’s everybody doing tonight?
If it’s a Friday in September in western Pennsylvania, do you even have to ask? Giving our undivided attention to best young football players in the area is the regional pastime in these parts, and the crop of talent in the WPIAL is so good in 2011 that the opening weekend of football season is turning heads outside of District 7.
Last year proved to be a down year for recruiting in the area. Only 21 players received Division I offers. In stark contrast, that number has already been exceeded this year, and continues to grow as we speak. The college-ready talent is so much stronger a certain Four-Letter Network decided the Gateway Kickoff Classic, which features some of the most prized recruits in all of PA, is worth a few hours of its time.
But first, “Mr. High School Sports” enthusiastically begins his Week 1 preview, as he typically does, by examining our 93.7 The Fan Game of the Week, which pits two old friends and two very prestigious programs against one another for the first time ever…
GAME OF THE WEEK:
THOMAS JEFFERSON JAGUARS (0-0) AT WOODLAND HILLS WOLVERINES (0-0)
THE WOLVARENA, TURTLE CREEK
Pre-game coverage with MSA Sports’ Don Rebel begins at 6:00 on 93.7 The Fan; kickoff at 7:00 with Lanny Frattare on play-by-play, Bob Orkwis on color commentary
SCOUTING THE TEAMS:
Thomas Jefferson head coach Bill Cherpak on facing the Wolverines:
“We like to start off the season with a tough opponent, just to gauge where we are. We’re looking for which guys step up, and are going to be ready to play the rest of the season.”
Woodland Hills head coach George Novak on facing the Jaguars:
“[Cherpak] uses some of the things we used at Steel Valley that we still use here at Woodland Hills. This is going to be a great experience, and a lot of fun.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Be prepared. Cherpak knows from having worked briefly with Novak that the Woody High coach really likes to keep an open mind during these non-conference games. Don’t be surprised if the Wolverines try to give TJ a lot of different looks, with a lot of different personnel, as both coaches aim to get a feel for their respective teams.
2. “Ruffing” them up. TJ runs the ball effectively year after year, no matter who the program graduates, and senior Ryan Ruffing will carry much of the load this year after rumbling for 861 yards and 12 TD’s in 2010, averaging over six yards per carry. The Jaguars need to out-tough Woodland Hills and establish the run like N.A. did at Heinz Field.
3. The big play. The most glaring weakness of this defense, which typically doesn’t have any, last year was that it got beat deep more than usual, especially in the playoffs against Central Valley. Woody High will throw more this year, so the secondary has to be on its game.
WOODLAND HILLS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Physical play. These two teams are among the most well conditioned in the WPIAL, and if TJ finds some running room, Woodland Hills needs to tackle well. Senior linebacker and D-1 prospect Mike Caprapra, the leading tackler in program history, will be counted on for a big night.
2. Air Menifee. It could be a tough transition for this offense to find different ways to score with star tailback Lafayette Pitts matriculating his way to Pitt, so the playbook, at least early on, will belong to senior Pat Menifee, who completed 57.3% of his passes in 2010 for 790 yards and 11 TD’s. By that same token, keep your eye on top receiver Shakim Alonzo.
3. Pressure Presto. Senior Dom Presto is TJ’s new quarterback after seeing a lot of playing time in 2010 as Ryan Crouse’s backup, and as a result, he’s gained a lot of confidence at the position. Woody High’s defense needs to shake that confidence, and shake up the rhythm of TJ’s offense, by getting up in his face.
Be sure to revisit 937thefan.com tonight for our in-game blog live from The Wolvarena!
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH:
Washington (0-0) at Clairton (0-0) (7:30) – There’s a little bit of excitement surrounding the Little Prexies after a strong finish in 2010, and there’s a little bit of uncertainty surrounding the two-time PIAA Class A champs after graduating so much Division I talent. Maybe Washington will at least fare a little better in this year’s opener after the No. 1 defense in the state shut them out and didn’t even allow positive net yardage a year ago. Jaylin Kelly, who ran for 582 yards, seven TD’s, and averaged over eight yards per carry in 2010, leads Washington’s wing-T offense, while future Pitt DB Trenton Coles captains Clairton’s defense, which has spurned the Bears on their 31-game winning streak and recorded 26 shutouts over the past three seasons.
State College (0-0) at North Allegheny (0-0) (7:00) – For Art Walker’s Tigers, the WPIAL and PIAA title defense begins, albeit without several of the players who were instrumental in dismantling the Little Lions in last year’s season opener, and again in the first round of the state playoffs. Quarterback Josh Weakland is back for State College after completing 66.4% of his passes for 21 TD’s and 2,179 yards in 2010, but he needs to protect the ball better against this defense, which tormented him last year, and cut down on his INT total of 13. North Allegheny will once again try to compete by ramming the ball down your throat, so the Lions need to be prepared for a committee of new running backs led by Vinnie Congedo, who ran for 379 yards and three TD’s, averaging over five yards per carry in limited duty last year, including 142 and two scores against the Lions in the playoffs.
South Fayette (0-0) at West Mifflin (0-0) (7:30) – The cupboard is not completely bare at South Fayette, after a run of perfection to the WPIAL Class AA crown and coming within one win of capturing state gold, but Joe Rossi’s Lions have to figure out how to effectively replace a ton of skill. Christian Brumbaugh is gone after his record-setting campaign under center, though his understudy, John Lerda, looks to be a very capable quarterback, and Trevor Fiorentini, one of their hardest hitters, brings his trademark toughness to the backfield again after rushing for 310 yards and 11 TD’s in 2010, averaging nearly six yards a pop when Jeff Davis didn’t get the ball. The champs will be facing a team that can run the ball just as effectively, and can maybe make some noise out of the Big Eight Conference this year. Shamar Green led the Titans and ranked 12th in the WPIAL in rushing yards and scoring the previous regular season, finishing with 1,268 rush yards and 18 TD’s overall.
Montour (0-0) at Chartiers Valley (0-0) (7:00) – As was the case in last season’s opener, this will be probably one of the most entertaining contests of Week 1. It’ll be a measuring stick for the Spartans, who can serve early notice that they’re still the team to beat in Class AAA in 2011, and it’ll also be a measuring stick for the Colts, who can determine if they still have what it takes to keep pace in the Big Eight Conference, where the general competition will be as brutal as Friday’s individual opponent. Montour’s Dillon Buechel looks like maybe the premier quarterback in western PA after throwing for 2,221 yards and 24 TD’s, and completing 60% of his passes en route to its Parkway Conference title WPIAL Championship appearance, and 1,000-yard rusher Julian Durden gives the Spartans a lethal double-barreled attack. Wayne Capers is back at QB for Char’ Valley after a season-ending spleen injury to Christian Kuntz; Capers threw for 339 yards and three TD’s against Montour last year before suffering a season-ending leg injury in that game.
Shaler (0-0) at Upper St. Clair (0-0) (7:30) – This Quad-A matchup is one people have been looking forward to because we get our first look at a Panthers squad expected to challenge for supremacy in the classification, and also our first look at the Titans, who should be vastly improved…what’s left of them, anyway. Shaler is missing several returning starters for this game, and presumably more, due to everything from ACL tears to soccer tournament commitments, so we may not see this team at its best yet, especially if Dakota Conwell has his way. The dual-threat quarterback and Pitt recruit scrambled for 1,085 yards and 16 TD’s in 2010, averaging well over six per tote, while completing 51.2% of his passes for 917 yards and seven TD’s. Conwell, who registered 64 tackles as a linebacker, has an intriguing matchup against J.P. Holtz, who is back at tight end, but might get the keys to the store with all those injuries. He ran for 432 yards and 10 TD’s in 2010, averaging over four yards per carry.
CLASS A EASTERN CONFERENCE:
Bishop Canevin (0-0, 0-0) at Avonworth (0-0, 0-0) (7:30) – Right out of the tunnel we have a significant early-season battle in this conference–significant because both these schools tied for the title a year ago, and while Canevin suffered some tough roster turnover, the ‘Lopes suffered a little as well, not to mention a coaching turnover. Jason Kekseo, who resurrected the program, is out, and Derek Johncour, the team’s longtime defensive coordinator, has been promoted. If the Crusaders are going to chase Avonworth for another Eastern championship, this contest is one of their keys. Avonworth will put the ball back in the hands of Ricky Lawniczak, who racked up 901 yards and 10 TD’s before his season-ending collar bone injury, and the Antelopes also have an edge at QB with 1,000-yard passer Brian Vales back under center. Their defense must contain Bobby Gustine, who led Canevin with 605 yards receiving and seven TD grabs in 2010.
CLASS AA MIDWESTERN CONFERENCE:
Laurel (0-0, 0-0) at Aliquippa (0-0, 0-0) (7:00) – The Spartans, like most MAC teams that come to “The Pit,” may be running for their lives against one of the toughest defenses in the classification, so if Laurel is to somehow pull off an upset of the three-time WPIAL Class AA finalist and 2011 consensus favorite, it’ll have to do some running of its own. Tailback Dylan Jones finished the 2010 regular campaign third in Class AA with 1,286 rushing yards, averaging almost eight per attempt, and 15 TD’s, and Laurel’s offensive line might be an even bigger strength of this team. Having said that, no one intimidates Aliquippa (rarely, anyway), which averaged just 8.6 points allowed per game last year, the second fewest in the classification. One of the more exceptional athletes on a team that has so many of them is QB Mikal Hall, who threw for 1,537 yards and 19 TD’s last year, completing 63.2% of his passes.
Enjoy your games tonight, and be sure to visit 937thefan.com again on Saturday for special bonus Week 1 coverage, as “Mr. High School Sports” sets the stage for Sunday’s Gateway Kickoff Classic!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)