Central Valley, Knoch and Franklin Regional won Class AAA football conference titles in 2011, while Thomas Jefferson and West Mifflin Area shared a title, but all five teams fell short of the ultimate prize.
Montour, a runner-up from the Parkway Conference, claimed the WPIAL crown with a 42-14 domination of Knoch in the championship game at Heinz Field. The Spartans, seeded No. 5 in the Class AAA bracket, outscored opponents by a 149-58 margin in four WPIAL playoff games.
Class AAA had a makeover during the offseason and four teams dropped to Class AA: South Park, McGuffey, Valley and Kittanning. The remaining 27 teams were condensed into three nine-team conferences.
The Big Eight Conference is now the Big Nine, as five teams from last year's alignment have joined with four schools from the now defunct Keystone Conference.
The Parkway Conference also increased to nine teams as Chartiers Valley has moved over from the Big Eight.
The Greater Allegheny Conference was left with five teams after Valley and Kittanning dropped to AA. The remaining five teams were placed with the remaining four teams from the Keystone Conference and the coaches voted to retain the Greater Allegheny name.
Parity has been realized in Class AAA, as seven different teams have appeared at Heinz Field in the Class AAA title game over the past four years. Montour is the only team that made two title-game appearances during that stretch.
The last team to win consecutive titles in Class AAA was Thomas Jefferson (2006-08).
Aaron Krepps has led the Leopards to three consecutive WPIAL Class AAA playoff appearances since taking over as head coach at his alma mater.
The Leopards tied for third place in the Big Eight Conference and finished with a 4-6 overall record after losing to Franklin Regional in the opening round of the WPIAL playoffs last year.
Belle Vernon has 19 lettermen returning and starters back at 17 positions, but tailback Ian Dobbins, the team's leading rusher with 940 yards on 147 carries in 2011, has graduated.
"Ian was one of only nine seniors we had on last year's team," Krepps said. "We had a lot of underclassmen gain experience last year, especially when we ran into injury problems. We actually had four freshmen earn varsity letters last year. That experience should help us this year."
Eight starters return on offense for the Leopards, including a trio of linemen who are three-year starters, Dorian Johnson (6-6, 275, Sr., OT/DT), Austin Fields (6-1, 230, Jr., OG/DE), and Collin Woss (6-3, 265, Sr., OT/DT). Aaron McCullough (5-10, 215, Jr., OG/LB) also returns on the offensive line.
"Dorian is one of the best linemen in the state," Krepps said.
Johnson, a Division I blue-chip recruit who committed to Penn State earlier this year, has re-opened his recruiting following the NCAA sanctions against the Nittany Lions.
Other starters back on offense for the Leopards are Travis Snyder (5-11, 160, Soph., QB), Jake Sweitzer (6-3, 200, Jr., TE/DE) and Adam Ferita (6-0, 200, Sr., WR/DB). Snyder started half the Leopards games and completed 28 of 61 passes for 310 yards.
Others back on defense are: Derek Powell (5-8, 150, Sr., DB), Matt McClosky (5-11, 175, Sr., DB), and Seth Manack (5-8, 175, Sr., LB).
The Colts have moved from the Big Eight to the Parkway Conference as Chris Saluga enters his 12th season as head coach.
Chartiers Valley earned its eighth WPIAL playoff berth in nine years after finishing in a three-way tie for third place last season in the Big Eight. The Colts finished with a 5-5 record after losing in the first round of the playoffs to eventual champion Montour.
"The Parkway Conference is certainly an upgrade from the Big Eight," Saluga said. "There's no weak link in this conference. It will be a real challenge to qualify for the playoffs."
Defense should be a strength for the Colts as eight starters return, including four two-way returnees, Mitch Zajicek (6-0, 260, Sr., C/DL), Joe Ragni (5-10, 215, Sr., FB/LB), Dom Giuntini (6-1, 220, Sr., OG/DE) and Michael Boulos (5-10, 185, Sr., RB/CB).
"Our defense will have to carry us until our offense can get into a rhythm," Saluga said.
The other four starters back on defense are Ben Kumpf (6-2, 235, Jr., DE), Nick Gillot (5-11, 210, Sr., LB), Connor Lindsay (5-10, 180, Sr., LB) and Spencer Casson (6-7, 240, DE).
Boulos led Chartiers Valley with 619 yards on 96 rushing attempts last season.
"Michael might be our quarterback this year," Saluga said. "We used him some in that role last year. He's small but powerful with great vision.
"He's competing with Andreo Curry (5-11, 180, Jr.) to be our quarterback."
Other starters returning on offense for the Colts are guard Tyler Golden (6-4, 215, Sr.) and placekicker Kristina Coyne (5-11, 145, Sr.), one of the few females playing football in the WPIAL this season.
Mike LeDonne's second stint as the Warriors head coach began in 2011. The Warriors had only one win in the Big Eight Conference and finished with a 2-8 overall record. LeDonne has 12 starters returning from that team.
"Last year at this time, the kids were learning new offensive and defensive schemes," said LeDonne, whose first stint as head coach at Elizabeth Forward was from 2000-02. "It's a much different story this year. The kids have had a year to learn our system and are feeling much more comfortable with it."
Ryan Wardropper (6-2, 190, Jr.) was one of three players the Warriors used at quarterback last year. He also played tailback, slotback, and safety. He rushed for 265 yards on 68 carries. He also completed 6 of 20 passes for 46 yards.
"Ryan is competing with Matt Diehl (5-11, 180, Sr.) for the quarterback spot," LeDonne said. "We have more options with Ryan because he's so versatile."
Wardropper and Matt Bernadowski (6-2, 164, Jr., WR/CB) are two-way returning starters. Bernadowski caught 17 passes for 255 yards last season. The two are joined on offense by four returning linemen, center Devin McDonough (6-0, 245, Soph.), tackle Jake Brown (5-10, 230, Jr.) and guards Adam Oatman (6-1, 240, Sr.) and Ben Guenther (6-3, 272, Sr.).
Others returning on defense are safety Bill Miles (5-10, 170, Soph.) and linemen Max Strotman (6-2, 210, Sr.), Brandon Janicki (5-11, 215, Jr.), Adam Smith (6-0, 214, Soph.) and Damon Morris (6-1, 215, Soph.).
In the two years since Matt Humbert took the reins at Ringgold, the Rams have had a 17-4 record and qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs twice. Ringgold placed second in the Keystone Conference last year and advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals before losing to Central Valley.
Ringgold has moved to the Big Nine Conference for Humbert's third season.
"We may have changed conferences, but the goal is still the same," Humbert said. "Winning the conference title is always our goal."
Ringgold has six starters returning on each side of the ball, but must replace quarterback Quad Law, who rushed for 1,249 yards and threw for 581 yards. Law could be replaced by younger brother Nico Law (5-11, 175, Soph.). Nico Law is battling with last year's backup, Chris Spahr (5-11, 165, Sr.), who completed 9 of 18 passes for 84 yards in limited action.
"We will rely more on the passing game this year," Humbert said. "Chris played in a handful of games last year, so he has some varsity experience. Nico is a little taller than his brother, but has the same skill set. He's more of a pure passer. It's a toss-up between the two. I would feel comfortable with either."
The Rams have a two-year starter returning in the backfield. Demetrius Louis (5-11, 195, Sr.) has rushed for 811 yards on 87 carries over the past two seasons, which averages to an astounding 9.3 yards per carry.
"Demetrius is the best tailback in the conference," Humbert said. "He's a very talented athlete who has Division I potential."
Other returning starters for Ringgold are Matt Devenney (5-11, 245, Sr., C), Nygel Vann (5-9, 250, Sr., OG/NG), Chase Colucci (6-2, 220, Sr., OT), Joey Wall (5-11, 175, Sr., WR/OLB), Pernell Barner (5-8, 165, Sr., WR/CB), Jake Foglia (5-11, 185, Sr., DE), Austin Young (6-4, 200, Sr., DE), Justin Rich (6-0, 190, Sr., LB) and Alan Pritchett (5-10, 160, Jr., OLB).
The Jaguars have placed among the top four teams in Class AAA 13 of the past 14 years. During this stretch, the Jaguars won or shared 12 Big Eight Conference titles, and placed second the other two years. Coach Bill Cherpak's squad posted a 7-4 record last season after a 31-9 loss to Knoch in the WPIAL quarterfinals.
Two of the Jaguars top three skill players have graduated. Quarterback Dom Presto, who threw for 1,663 yards and 17 touchdowns, and Ryan Ruffing, who ran for 1,394 yards, must be replaced. Presto's favorite target, wide receiver Zach Schademan (5-11, 175, Sr.), is back after catching 49 passes for 807 yards.
"Joe Carroll (6-2, 185, Sr.) will replace Presto," Cherpak said. "He rotated into the lineup some last year. Every fourth possession or so I would have Joe in the game, so he does have varsity experience."
Byron Minous (6-0, 190, Jr.) steps into the tailback vacancy after rushing for 117 yards on 19 carries last year. Austin Kemp (5-11, 215, Soph.) is also expected to see time in the backfield. Kemp rushed for 159 yards on 22 carries as a freshman.
Other returning starters on offense are center Pat Hall (6-1, 235, Sr.), guard Austin Boyd (5-9, 230, Jr.) and receiver Jake Mascaro (6-3, 185, Sr.).
"We've got a good nucleus of returning starters and some younger kids who are ready to step into the starting lineup," Cherpak said. "We're very optimistic with the group of kids we have."
Kemp and Boyd are returning starters at linebacker, while Schademan returns at cornerback. Other defensive returnees for the Jaguars are Dalton Dietrich (6-0, 170, Jr., CB), Chase Winovich (6-4, 200, Jr., S), Matt Nagy (6-2, 240, Jr., DT) and Colton Booher (6-2, 200, Sr., OLB).
The Hillers finished in a three-way tie for third place in the Big Eight Conference last year, but were the odd team out after coming up short in the Gardner Point System, the WPIAL's first tiebreaker. That ended a six-year streak of WPIAL playoff appearances.
Ryan Coyle will make his head coaching debut for Trinity after assistant coaching stints at Mt. Lebanon, Shaler Area and Penn Hills.
"We've had conditioning workouts since I took the job in March, so I've had some time to familiarize myself with everything," said Coyle, who grew up in Penn Hills. "I can tell who the returning starters are from watching film, but all 22 starting positions are up for grabs. Everybody has to prove to the coaching staff that they deserve to start."
Coyle is fortunate to have a quarterback, two running backs and a wide receiver returning. Jason Vankirk (5-10, 174, Sr.) completed 50 of 100 passes for 872 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. His favorite target was Corey Hunsberger (6-3, 195, Sr.), who had 13 catches for 257 yards.
"Corey is an all-conference standout on both sides of the ball," said Coyle of Hunsberger, who is also a safety. "Jason [Vankirk] is competing with Don McWreath (6-4, 217, Sr.) for quarterback. Don was a back-up tight end and starter at linebacker last year."
Kyle Dugan (5-8, 170, Sr.) led the Hillers with 422 yards on 65 rushing attempts, while Pat Frey (5-9, 185, Jr.) added 388 yards on 76 carries. Frey accumulated 635 yards on 125 carries as a freshman.
"Both are quick kids," said Coyle. "Pat is more of a power back. Kyle has more quickness in the open field."
A couple others to watch for the Hillers are Xavier Severns (6-1, 285, Sr., OL/DL) and Jared Deep (6-2, 221, Sr., TE). Severns was an all-conference lineman on defense, who also saw some time on offense.
The Titans shared the Big Eight Conference title with Thopmas Jefferson last year and earned their second consecutive WPIAL playoff berth last season with tailback Shamar Greene leading the way.
West Mifflin advanced to the quarterfinals of the playoffs before losing to eventual champion Montour.
Coach Ray Braszo's squad will be hard pressed to match last year's 9-2 record, as Greene has graduated after rushing for 3,269 yards on 542 carries during his three years in the Titans backfield.
"It's almost impossible to replace somebody who meant as much to our offense as Shamar did," Braszo said.
"Derrick Fulmore will have to step forward and be the focus of our offense."
Fulmore (6-0, 180, Sr.) was a two-way starter at quarterback and safety last season. He completed 39 of 88 passes for 700 yards and six touchdowns, while throwing only five interceptions. Fulmore also rushed for 422 yards on 68 carries.
"Derrick is actually a better player on defense. He was named defensive MVP in the conference," Braszo said.
Others returning on offense for the Titans are tight end Marcus Martin (6-2, 210, Sr.), tackle Jimmy Popa (6-0, 245, Sr.), center James Keys (6-1, 225, Sr.) and guard Corey Samudosky (6-0, 235, Sr.).
"It certainly helps to have three linemen and a tight end coming back," Braszo said.
Martin, a two-way starter at end, and Fulmore are two of four returnees on defense. Also back on defense are linebackers DiAngelo Mitchell (5-10, 170, Soph.) and Colton Weber (6-0, 170, Jr.).
"We lost a lot, but we should be in the mix," Braszo said. "We will be fighting for a playoff spot."
First Published August 23, 2012 4:00 AM