By Matt Popchock


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On the night of Friday, August 31, the 107th season of WPIAL football shall begin. With 125 teams across 14 conferences and four classifications to discuss, it’s time to get excited.

We’re going to keep our preseason coverage going with a series of rapid-fire previews, focusing on the Northeastern Conference in Class AAA. This new conference, a result of the Greater Allegheny more or less merging with the Keystone, per biennial district realignment, features two of last year’s WPIAL semifinalists and another team that could go on a lengthy playoff run in 2012.

Given the consolidation of Class AAA, five teams out of each conference, rather than just four, are guaranteed postseason spots, and while conventional wisdom says the “wild card” will more likely emerge from the Big Nine or the Parkway Conference, there’s a good chance one of the old Keystone teams could rise up and seize the opportunity.

Here’s what to look for when the 2012 season starts:

*In the time it takes us to write and publish this, how far can Franklin Regional senior tailback Dane Brown run? Nothing would shock us, considering the spotlight probably shifts in his direction as the premier rusher in Class AAA with Rushel Shell matriculating to Pitt.

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Brown (5’7″, 185 lbs.), who led the Panthers to a Keystone Conference title and picked up all-conference honors in the process last fall, can lead them to another while courting recruiters from the Ivy and Patriot Leagues. He finished third in Class AAA as a junior with 1,960 yards and led the classification with 34 touchdowns. Furthermore, with a confident returning quarterback in Nico Lodovico, and one of the best linebacking corps in the section, led by fellow seniors Carter Henderson and Nick Vento, Franklin Regional looks like a clear front-runner.

*Which of the former Keystone squads will make the most progress? Greensburg-Salem graduated much of the skill from its 2011 team, but they have senior Tyler Shook, who could be a terrific under-the-radar tailback, and offensive and defensive lines that could improve. Hollidaysburg also looks tough up front, though it seems the Golden Tigers have a little more to replace on offense, not to mention a defense in considerable need of improvement. Junior quarterback Brian Urban better be ready to go to town, or hand off to Greg Dinges a lot. Derry hasn’t won a playoff game in over a decade, and senior tailback Josh Wannamaker will shoulder the load until the Trojans can find a dependable quarterback.

*Will the Planets realign in 2012? Scott Heinauer’s teams are reputedly tough and well-conditioned, and 2011 was a learning experience that could prepare Mars for a year of possibly challenging Franklin Regional for the Northeastern Conference title. Connor Biggs and Jason Lozzi are both coming off all-conference junior seasons in the trenches, and fullback Jason Lozzi, who ran for over 700 yards and nine TD’s as a sophomore, leads a powerful, versatile running game. If QB Owen Nearhoof continues to mature, and if the defense, collectively, does the same, Mars can return to glory.

*Can Knoch replicate the magic of last fall? Due to the general emergence of other teams in the conference, and the fact that most of the bona fide leadership on that team has moved on, a return to Heinz Field doesn’t seem realistic. Having said that, the Knights still have some versatility on offense between new quarterback Dakota Bruggeman and senior pass-catching tailback Ben Tackett, so they will be a feisty opponent. Plus, with a senior class of 14 and a rich junior class behind them, another playoff berth is within reach.

*Was Indiana’s impressive play a one-shot deal? Can the same be said for Highlands? With the exception of all-conference linebacker Nick Cornell, the Little Indians don’t have much to shout about on a defensive unit that was underwhelming to begin with in 2011, and their top two playmakers on offense have graduated. Fortunately, Indiana still has good experience up front, but the chemistry of those new offensive starters will determine whether they return to the postseason. Meanwhile, for the Golden Rams to be playoff-bound again, they need to hope their linemen can play beyond their years, and that Justin Rose proves himself a better leader than graduated quarterback Gage Clark.

*Can either Hampton stay out of the basement? Basketball standout Colin Luther could be effective as both a wide receiver and a defensive back for the Talbots this season, and putting brother Ryan Luther at quarterback is an interesting experiment. Plus, senior running back Anthony Bianco is a handy weapon, so the odds are in Hampton’s favor here.

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(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)