The way coach Joe Rossi sees it, South Fayette last year was a mere three points away from yet another successful season.
As it was, last season was the Lions' first losing campaign (3-6) in six years and only second non-playoff season in that time. But with South Fayette having started six sophomores and a freshman in 2008 and with it returning nine starters each on offense and defense for this campaign, there's legitimate reason for optimism and that 2008 was merely a bump in the road on the way to better things.
"Being that young, we lost three one-point games last year," Rossi said, referring to defeats to Quaker Valley, Cornell and Bishop Canevin. "We easily could have been 6-3. But with more experience now with the game on the line in the huddle late in the fourth quarter, we should win those types of games."
South Fayette figures to start only two sophomores this season with the rest being upperclassmen, mostly experienced upperclassmen at that. A prime example comes at the pivotal quarterback position, where Christian Brumbaugh threw for 1,175 yards as a sophomore last season and is already getting some major-college looks.
"That's the focal point of our team, with five or six receivers who can play, two tackles coming back, a tight end coming back," Rossi said. "There are weapons for the kid to throw the ball to, which is nice."
Another player at a high-profile skill position who enters his junior year as a returning starter is running back Jeff Davis, who led the Lions last season in rushing yards (704) and touchdowns (12).
Central Catholic transfer Jonathan Gardner provides another playmaking option.
"We want to compete for a [Century Conference] championship," Rossi said. "We just know the league's brutal. We can finish anywhere from first through seventh. If we stay healthy, we've got a chance."
Just two seasons removed from a 2-7 campaign at the Class A level, the Crusaders have a legitimate chance to qualify for the Class AA playoffs, if not more, for the second consecutive season.
"If we stay healthy and [the receivers develop], we will be a contender," longtime coach Bob Jacoby said.
Six starters return on both offense and defense from a team that went 5-5 and lost in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs, including junior quarterback Matt Butter (6-0, 200) and each of the top three rushers from last season, juniors Chris Walko (5-6, 150) and Bruce Maloney (5-8, 177) and senior Jeff Dobbins (6-2, 226), who is also a standout linebacker and who came back from a knee injury.
Other returning starters include senior linebacker Zach Hildebrand (6-0, 189), senior lineman Kirk Nypaver (6-2, 250), junior guard George Boulos (5-9, 270), senior defensive end John Philbin (5-11, 202), linebacker/running back Travis Lohr (5-8, 200), senior defensive back Nico Palmosina (6-1, 160) and wide receiver Steven Frost (5-9, 155).
Also, senior kicker/punter Drake Greer returns. He had six field goals last season and Jacoby said he will be kicking in college.
The Golden Eagles tied for the Century Conference tile last season with Seton-LaSalle and Sto-Rox, and they return nine starters each on offense and defense, leading to some uncharacteristic coachspeak optimism.
"We're a strong team with lots of experience," Keystone Oaks coach Nick Kamberis said. "We should be decent."
The Golden Eagles did lose starting quarterback Corey Bellovich and 1,200-yard rusher Dion Wiegand.
Senior Mike Barrett (6-0, 180) and sophomore Matt Buckley (5-11, 160) are competing for the starting quarterback job.
The returnees include all-conference senior tight end Max Kielbasa (6-2, 255), tackle Al Demczak 6-3, 280), and junior running back/linebackers Jordan Maddox (5-8, 185) and Matt McCann (6-0, 190) and a group of eight other seniors, guard James Zieler (6-3, 272), center Even Schindler (6-3, 275), guard/defensive tackle Steve Staitaregia (6-3, 275), guard Calen Stoliker (5-11, 273), tight end/defensive end Brandon Stevens (6-1, 250), wideout/defensive back Lee Shearn, wideout/defensive end Alex Hudson (5-11, 165) and linebacker Chad Miller (5-9, 199).
Keystone Oaks has a three-year playoff streak to keep alive, having last sat out the postseason in 2005 while a member of the Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference.
The Rebels return much of their skill-position talent but are less experienced along the offensive and defensive lines.
A reigning All-Century Conference selection, three-year starter Evan Kelly (6-2, 260) stabilizes both lines but will be surrounded by underclassmen.
Seton-LaSalle has quite the history at producing quarterbacks in coach Greg Perry's pass-heavy scheme and quarterback Anthony Rizza passed for 1,127 yards and rushed for 517 as a junior last season.
"It looks like he's grown into his position," Perry said. "He got 10 starts last year, and we expect him to take control and manage the game, making checks at the line of scrimmage."
Senior Jake Novicki is the top returning option in the receiving corps.
Junior receiver Michael DelSardo, senior lineman Drew Miller and senior corner/wide receiver Eric Sowinski are currently out of action due to various ailments but Perry said all should return at some point.
The Rebels have qualified for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs during each of the past five seasons and haven't had a losing record since 1997, so it's not much of a stretch to anoint them contenders.
"We have key ingredients back," Perry said. "Quarterback, wide receiver -- and when Michael [Del Sardo] comes back, another threat -- and Evan Kelly anchors the line pretty well. We're going to be OK, and how OK we are depends on how these kids step up."
The Eagles have only eight seniors on the team, but that doesn't mean they are caving to conventional wisdom that would say they are building for next year.
"Our goal is always the same -- no matter how we go into the season, we're concerned about winning the Century Conference [title], competing for a WPIAL title, and, obviously once you're fortunate enough to do that, competing for a state title," coach Tom Loughran said.
"Our kids always know that we've obviously won a state championship twice and those 1997 and 2005 teams are kind of like the bar that everybody compares themselves to."
South Park might be short on seniors, but the ones they have are playing rather prominent roles. Eric Davis takes over as the starting quarterback this season, running back Shayne Dotson is coming off a 1,310-yard campaign, Patrick Bradshaw is a returning two-way starter on the offensive and defensive lines; Cody Fircak, Mike Piscitelli and Jeff Roberto also will play in the trenches, Rob Mirt sees action at defensive end and fullback and soccer player Ron Graf takes over as kicker.
"The kids have been working hard," Loughran said. "We've been progressing nicely in camp."
The Ironmen slipped from an undefeated 2007 regular season to 3-6 last season, but even though the team lost Pitt recruit Tyrone Ezell and almost-1,000-yard running back Tyrell Smith, coach Ray Braszo said Steel Valley can rebound toward its '07 form.
"You always strive to make the playoffs, and if we work hard and stay healthy, we're capable of securing one of the spots available in our conference," Braszo said.
Senior Tony Johnson returns for his second season as starting quarterback after throwing for 458 yards last season, and Braszo said he has stepped up his leadership qualities.
Other experienced players include running back Delrece Williams, who figures to take over the primary ball-carrying duties after tying Smith for the team lead in touchdowns last season.
Also, look for tight end Nate Blazevich, running back Mike Todd and fullback James Caldwell to contribute more. Braszo also is pleased that four linemen return.
"We had a pretty good offseason," Braszo said. "The kids worked pretty hard. We've got some kids back from last year, and hopefully having a year of experience under their belt will help."
The Cougars have some talented underclassmen to build around in sophomore running back Quentin Briggs and junior offensive tackle Zach Hooks. Briggs (5-10, 200) rushed for 1,065 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman last season, and as a Division I prospect Hooks (6-7, 277) is literally a big reason why.
Other returnees on offense include junior backfield mates Demetri Edwards and Corey Altemara. Adding Briggs to the mix, it's easy to see why Charleroi coach Luke Mollis called running backs "the strength of our team."
Other experienced returnees are senior tight end Jake Linn, junior lineman Zach Meharey, senior lineman Ryan Campbell and junior wideout/running back Kyle Shannon.
Nose tackle Campbell, who is recovering from knee surgery, safety/linebacker Shannon, linebacker Altemara, lineman Linn and junior cornerback Tom Thorpe figured to be mainstays on defense.
"We return a strong core of players that should provide for a competitive season," Mollis said.
The Highlanders hope to build off making their first playoff appearance last season since winning the 1994 WPIAL title.
Coach Derek Bochna's team returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense.
The seniors who are returning starters from last season's 6-4 team that took fourth place in the competitive Interstate Conference are fullback/linebacker Nick Shuman (5-11, 200), running back/cornerback Trenton Bedillion (5-11, 170), running back/free safety Tyler Kerns (6-0, 185), center Frank Morris (6-1, 205), offensive and defensive tackle Andy Rickey (6-2, 255), lineman Tom Teagarden (5-10, 215), linebacker Logan McAnany (6-1, 190), wide receiver/safety Dustin Schumacher (6-0, 180), lineman Adam Fischer (6-1, 220) and wide receiver Jimmy Milligan (5-7, 155).
Juniors who started last season include lineman John Leasure (6-2, 230), safety Derrick Whipkey (5-8, 165) and defensive tackle Matt Lunardini (6-2, 270).
Bedillion rushed for a team-high 572 yards and eight touchdowns last season; Shuman was second in rushing with 485 yards and added five touchdowns. Kerns also scored five touchdowns and averaged more than 6.5 yards per carry, while Whipkey was the team's leading receiver, grabbing four touchdown catches.
Pat Monroe's team improved from 2-7 in 2007 to 5-5 last season and is looking to take another step. A handful of starters returns to aid in that quest.
"It was an excellent offseason for our young guys," Monroe said. "We're real young in a lot of key positions, but we've also got some very good veterans."
Senior lineman Marc Stecak is chief among them. A senior, he was an All-Interstate Conference selection last season.
He's a force on the football field," Monroe said.
Also back as leaders are senior all-conference kicker/punter Dylan Bogdan, junior running back/linebacker Tyler Wagner, 6-foot-6, 210-pound sophomore tight end Jesse James, senior lineman John Geary (6-1 210), center Mitchell Thomas (5-10, 250) and sophomore Jake Leber.
"Those guys really committed themselves, and they're going to get everything they can out of themselves and also really lead by example," Monroe said. "They've been real great to work with."
As a three-year starter, junior quarterback Zach Anderson also would fit into that category, but he will likely miss the start of the regular season due to injury. Sophomore Dylan Fox will play in his stead.
Monroe called the tailback spot "wide open" with junior Nick Camponizzi, sophomores Cameron Mehalchik and Dalton Walsh and freshman Brandon Murn in the running for playing time.
The Prexies endured their worst season in recent memory last season, going 1-8. Former Carmichaels coach Mike Bosnic was hired as coach during the offseason.
When asked what his expectations for the season were, Bosnic said he is out to change the attitude of the team and ensure it competes every week.
"We have some potential, some talent," Bosnic said. "It's going to be a matter of getting the kids in the right frame of mind and keeping them getting better everyday, taking small steps.
"We'll be competitive every game and just take it one week at a time."
Several sophomores and a couple freshmen could see playing time this season as Wash High begins its rebuilding effort.
Among the veterans who will be depended on are Bryan Thomas, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound tight end/defensive end who has Division I-A scholarship offers. Juniors Marquis Brown and Julien Anderson will vie for time at quarterback, as was the case last season, with the other also on the field.
Other seniors who will play include linebacker Jarrod Interval, wideout Jordan Ribel, linemen Drew Scholato and Jamarr Dates and kicker/punter William Powell.