In the 32 years since the WPIAL created Class AAAA and its football championship game, no team has won three consecutive titles.
That could change this season, as North Allegheny has won back-to-back titles. The Tigers defeated Woodland Hills, 21-14, in the 2010 title game, then earned the repeat with an exciting 28-21 overtime victory against Upper St. Clair in last year's title game.
North Allegheny, Upper St. Clair, Central Catholic and Penn-Trafford won conference titles last year in Class AAAA. That won't happen this season, as the WPIAL switched to a three-conference, 26-team alignment after Erie McDowell returned to District 10.
The departure of Erie McDowell left the Northern Seven Conference with six teams, so Central Catholic and Fox Chapel Area were added from the now defunct Big East Conference. It's now the Northern Eight.
In the conference Shaler Area welcomes new coach Chris Siegle while Butler Area coach Clyde Conti and Fox Chapel Area coach Eric Ravotti enter their second years on the job.
Veteran coach Clyde Conti, now in his second season at Butler, will continue to attempt to turn around the struggling program.
Conti led the Golden Tornado to a 2-7 record last season, an improvement from a winless 2010 campaign. Butler welcomes back four starters on offense and five on defense including three-year starter and team leader Bob Vernick (5-11, 205, Sr., RB/LB).
Conti is also expecting big seasons out of Hayden Smith (6-1, 240, Sr., OT), Canan Roskovski (6-0, 170, Sr., WR/DB) and Jake Olenick (5-11, 175, Sr., SS/RB).
Despite being the largest school in terms of enrollment in the WPIAL, Butler has one of the smallest rosters in Class AAAA with only an estimated 40 players dressing for Butler's first scrimmage after a slew of injuries hurt an already thin roster.
"I have respect for the guys we have," Conti said. "There are always positives for me when you have kids who haven't had success and they still stay with it and work very hard."
The quarterback situation is between Jordan Cratty (6-1, 180, Sr.) and Tom Jendesky (6-4, 200, Jr.). Cratty started as a defensive back last year while Jendesky took varsity snaps at quarterback as a sophomore.
In his first year at Fox Chapel last year Eric Ravotti guided the Foxes from a 1-8 record in 2010 to a playoff berth.
Trying to build on that this year, Ravotti will need to replace three all-conference players, running back Noel Wilson, linebacker Renny Holloman and lineman Adam Bisnowaty. Junior Nigel Garnett (5-11, 170, RB/DB) returns after being named an all-conference defensive back as a sophomore.
Not only do the Foxes have to replace Wilson, Holloman and Bisnowaty but they also have to navigate a new conference schedule as Fox Chapel moves to the Northern Eight Conference, home of powerhouses such as Central Catholic and North Allegheny and other contenders such as North Hills and Seneca Valley.
Wilson was the team's leading rusher and also leading passer as he split time with Alexander Romango (6-4, 200), who is now a senior quarterback. Garnett is the top returning receiver (11 receptions for 175 yards) and top returning rusher (72 carries for 359 yards).
Two-time defending WPIAL champion North Allegheny returns nearly all of its skill-position players on offense, including senior quarterback Mack Leftwich (5-11, 190). Leftwich threw for more than 2,000 yards last season as the Tigers reached the PIAA semifinals.
Senior wide receivers Gregg Garrity (5-9, 140) and Brendan Coniker (6-1, 180) also return after both finishing with more than 400 receiving yards last year while senior running back Alex DeCiantis (6-0, 195) led the Tigers with 806 rushing yards last season.
"I would say on the skill side, this group we return is right up there with any other group we have had," North Allegheny coach Art Walker said.
On the line, North Allegheny has to replace all-conference selections Zach Harvey and Pete Thistle but it does return senior two-way lineman Pat Kugler (6-4, 270, OT/DT), a University of Michigan recruit. Senior Taylor Nikithser (6-4, 205) is a returning starter at right tackle opposite Kugler.
The defense is led by Coniker at cornerback, inside linebacker Kevin Edwards (6-2, 205, Sr.), outside linebacker Chas Smith (6-1, 170, Sr.) and defensive tackle Jeremy Gonzales (6-1, 205, Sr.), a three-year starter.
"Everybody is talking about how we won the last two WPIAL championships," Walker said. "But every year is different.
"You like the fact that the seniors and juniors have experience being down there and being a part of that. You just have to understand the hard work, sacrifice and dedication that go into getting you there."
After back-to-back trips to the WPIAL semifinals in 2009 and 2010, North Hills failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, a rare occurrence under veteran coach Jack McCurry.
The Indians will look to return to the postseason this year as they welcome back six starters on offense and seven on defense.
Jordan Blackmon (6-0, 170, Sr., WR/DB) is one of the top players in the conference. At the other skill positions, Tyler Reddick (6-0, 180, Sr., RB/DB) and Josh Hulbert (5-8, 170, Sr., RB/DB) are returning starters and senior quarterback Brian Johnson (6-2, 195) appears ready to take over at quarterback for Anthony Rizzitano, who graduated.
The returning starters on the line are senior Andrew Ungerman (5-11, 240, OG/DT), junior Brandon Malick (5-11, 250, C/DT) and junior Colin Murphy (6-3, 260, OT).
On defense linebackers Anthony Danko (5-10, 185, Sr.), Malik Frank (5-9, 220, Sr.) and Kevin Koch (6-0, 190, Jr.) are all returning starters.
Potential newcomers to the offensive line include junior guard Alex Danis (6-2, 250), freshman tackle Jake Buccigrossi (6-3, 250) and sophomore guard Adam Hoffmeister (5-10, 225).
"[We're an] average team in a tough conference," McCurry said.
Pine-Richland returns nine starters on defense and it showed in its first scrimmage this preseason against Bethel Park as the defense held its opponents scoreless.
The defense may have to carry the Rams to start the season as Pine-Richland will have to replace 1,500-yard passer Austin Whipple and five other offensive starters from last season.
Sophomore Ben DiNucci (6-1, 165) and junior Dean Stellotis (6-3, 195) are competing for the quarterback job.
"They have their good days and their bad days," Pine-Richland coach Clair Altemus said of his quarterbacks. "The nice thing about it is you work with them and you have them back for another year or two."
All-conference selections C.J. Jackson (6-3, 220, Sr., TE/DE), a three-year starter, and Brock Baranowski (5-9, 190, Sr., RB/LB) return this year.
"C.J. is just a force on both sides of the ball," Altemus said. "He doesn't get rattled and is very calm.
"Brock, I can't say enough about him. I think he is one of the finest running backs in the WPIAL. He goes east and west and north and south with the same burst, the same speed. He has gotten bigger. He is going to be something else to deal with."
Other returning starters on defense include Nate Roberts (6-2, 167, Sr., OLB), Luke Merhaut (5-9, 167, Sr., CB), Kevin Radar (6-2, 156, Sr., DE), Michael Burnham (5-11, 160, Sr., OLB) and T.J. Muzzonigro (6-2, 230, Sr., DT). Pat Kline (6-2, 265, Sr.) is coming back from elbow surgery and he is expected to have an impact as a defensive tackle and center on the offense line. Kline is a three-year starter at center as is Muzzonigro at tackle.
Merhaut led the Rams in receiving last year with 28 catches for 351 yards while Baranowski rushed for 1,079 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The quarterback/running back tandem of Jordan Brown (6-2, 175, Sr.) and Forrest Barnes (6-0, 185, Sr.) highlight one of the most exciting offenses in the WPIAL, but with seven starters back on offense and six on defense the Raiders are more than a two-man show.
Brown and Barnes combined for more than 3,700 yards of total offense last year as Seneca Valley won its first playoff game since 2002. Other offensive weapons back include athlete Jon Dorogy (5-7, 175, Sr.), tight end R.J. McCauley (6-2, 205, Sr.) and wide receiver Ryan Conn (6-2, 195, Sr.).
Dorogy and Barnes are both track standouts who hold different school records. Brown's 40-yard dash speed has been clocked in less than 4.5 seconds. In the spread zone option read offense utilized by coach Don Holl, Dorogy and Barnes are utilized a number of different ways.
"Those three guys can really scoot," Holl said of Barnes, Brown and Dorogy.
Other returning starters are Nick Dahlstrom (6-2, 250, Sr. OT/DE), Dean Ketterer (6-4, 255, Sr., OL), Tyler Bommer (5-9, 170, Sr., DB) and Carson Kessler (6-0, 200, Sr., ILB) while McCauley is a returning starter at outside linebacker as is Dorogy at defensive back.
Former Titans standout Chris Siegle returns to his alma mater to undertake a rebuilding process.
Siegle takes over for Neil Gordon, who resigned after last season, and he inherits only one starter on each side of the ball.
Shaler reached the WPIAL playoffs three out of the past four seasons under Gordon, but Siegle will have to find a way to replace the team's major offensive weapons as quarterback Ryan Mincher and running back/tight end J.P. Holtz have graduated and last year's leading rusher, Niko Thorpe, transferred to Central Catholic.
Defensively, Holtz was an All-WPIAL linebacker and all-conference defensive back Alex Conway also graduated.
The lone returning starter on offense is offensive tackle Ross Budziszewski (5-9, 200, Jr.). Siegle, a former quarterback at Shaler, expects Brad Good (5-10, 165, Sr.) to take over for Mincher at quarterback.
"Obviously, you can't fill the void of a J.P. Holtz," Siegle said. "We have nine or 10 guys right now rotating in those spots, hoping to collectively match that productivity they got from Holtz last year."
Defensively Jesse Elrick (6-0, 256, Sr., NT) is the one returning starter back on defense. Shaler's first scrimmage was against Gateway, a program after which Siegle hopes to model his Titans.
"We are trying to build a program, not just a team," Siegle said.
"Gateway was the perfect example of a program we want to be like in 10 years. The things we are trying to do, it doesn't happen overnight."
First Published August 23, 2012 4:00 AM