By Matt Popchock
On Tuesday, the WPIAL crystallized rumors of radical realignment in football that would take effect prior to the 2012 season.
Once again, Class AAAA and Class AAA have shrunk to the point that those classifications will only have three conferences apiece, while the other two will still have four.
Class AA will carry 35 teams, and Class A will have 37. Only 27 and 26 teams will comprise Triple-A and Quad-A, respectively.
Fortunately, the district was able to preserve its playoff format. In the two higher classifications, the top five teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs, and the best of the three sixth-place teams will be awarded the 16th and final playoff berth.
Support of this plan reached a consensus, and personally, I think it’s just a sign of the economic times. By that same token, population in this area has regressed in my lifetime, so naturally, enrollment figures will dictate the expansion of Class AA and Class A.
With that economic climate in mind, it’s a surprise to me that the City League chose to stay on life support for football for at least two more years while merging with the WPIAL in second-tier sports, but that’s another conversation for another time…
Anyway, here are my thoughts on 2012-13 football alignment:
*Generally I like what the WPIAL has done with Quad-A. It hasn’t had to make any drastic changes to that classification since 2006, but once again, the Football Steering Committee used its noodle there. When I was a student at North Hills, the Indians were in the old “Quad North” with teams like Mount Lebanon and Bethel Park that, geographically speaking, had no business being there. At least those days are gone.
*Erie McDowell did North Hills, Seneca Valley, Pine-Richland, and Shaler a huge favor by relinquishing its full-time WPIAL football membership. That’s one less playoff-ready team for those four to worry about. Conversely, the district did Butler and Fox Chapel no favors by putting them in the same conference as North Allegheny and Pittsburgh Central Catholic. Still, it should be a lot of fun watching Art Walker coach against his old team (at least) once a year. I’m circling that one on my calendar.
*If it’s not the best conference in Quad-A, the hybrid of the Great Southern Conference and Big East Conference will certainly be the most competitive one. Bethel Park, Penn Hills, Upper St. Clair, and Woodland Hills have all been to Heinz Field in the past five years. Throw in Mount Lebanon, and you’ve got one heck of a conference title race. That new conference might mirror the Class AAA Parkway Conference in terms of top-to-bottom toughness. Having said that, the only minus, in my opinion, is the inevitably long travel for a couple of those schools.
*Speaking of which, you have to feel for Chartiers Valley. Year after year, the Colts had to play bridesmaid to Thomas Jefferson (and, to a lesser extent, West Mifflin), and now they go from the proverbial frying pan to a 450-degree oven. Chris Saluga can’t be happy about having to play in a conference that has been represented in the WPIAL championships six years in a row. If it’s any consolation, I’ll guarantee the Parkway Conference sends six teams to the playoffs this year.
*It’s also interesting that the WPIAL has essentially combined the Greater Allegheny Conference with the Keystone Conference. I’ll look forward to Franklin Regional’s regular season meeting with Knoch, a rematch of the 2011 WPIAL Class AAA Semifinals. Getting a read on that new conference won’t be easy, but I expect a lot of close games.
*Not much has changed in Class AA except for the fact there’s one additional team there, but I think one of the bigger winners in all the realignment is East Allegheny. The Wildcats are young, and by getting moved from the Interstate Conference (where Jeannette and Greensburg Central Catholic typically dominate) to make room for Washington, and switching to the more wide-open Allegheny Conference, they have a chance to improve their stead soon. Speaking of the Allegheny Conference, I’m glad the Burrell-Valley rivalry will be rekindled, and that it will mean something.
*The merger of Quaker Valley with the now-defunct football program at Cornell will definitely help the Quakers, but I still don’t think a playoff spot in the Century Conference is etched in stone.
*West Shamokin enters the 2012 season with the longest active losing streak in WPIAL football history (43 games). That school has really struggled in mainstream sports recently, and has entertained the thought of leaving for another PIAA district. Moving down to Class A may help, but moving to the Eastern Conference–where last year’s playoff race was so close you needed to be a nuclear physicist to figure it out–will not.
*What goes around comes around; three-time PIAA champion Clairton enters 2012 with the nation’s longest active winning streak (47 games), but the road back for Bears will be bumpier with Bishop Canevin and Monessen joining the Black Hills Conference.
*Another new member of that conference, Imani Christian, is new to WPIAL football altogether. The Catholic school based in the East Hills is already a WPIAL member in basketball, and the fact the WPIAL accepted it as a football member, despite probation that will forbid that team from playoff competition this year, tells me Vincentian Academy’s new program won’t be fast-tracked.
*I don’t have any nagging reservations about the radical realignment, except for one: the WPIAL will now have more control than ever before over scheduling. In fact, there will be no Week 1 non-conference games this season, and if I’m a coach (depending on where I am), that is, no pun intended, a red flag. A lot of coaches really value those non-conference games; they see them as exercises that prepare their teams for the crux of the regular season.
In the past, schools have been responsible for scheduling themselves out of conference, and WPIAL Chief Executive Tim O’Malley claims that is a popular complaint among coaches. There is a nugget of truth to that, but speaking as someone who works in a creative business, you usually have more options than you think, especially if you do that thinking outside the box.
Last year, Thomas Jefferson played Woodland Hills, Gateway played Bishop McDevitt, and Central Catholic played Archbishop Wood in Week 1. All three games generated positive attention for the WPIAL. This year, Clairton wanted to open with Southern Columbia, and Southern Columbia was amenable. That’s an excellent matchup, for obvious reasons.
Do those games mean anything? No. Do they equal television ratings and enhance the entertainment value of high school football around here? Yes. Those unconventional contests between high-profile programs are the thing I’ll miss most about WPIAL football moving forward.
Oh well, at least we get a head start on some of these playoff races…
Click here for the new WPIAL football alignment, thanks to Mike White of the Post-Gazette.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)