Much of the 2012 WPIAL season has yet to unfold, but through four games, many surprise teams have emerged and shown signs of significant improvement from last season, several of which are in the West Xtra region.
The biggest of these turnarounds in the region, and perhaps in the entire WPIAL, has come from Avella. The Eagles are off to a 4-0 start, something which few expected from a program with a history marred heavily by losing. Just last season, Avella went winless, a dubious feat it accomplished four other times since 2004.
But this season, things have turned around in a hurry for the Eagles. A team that was outscored 383-56 in nine games last season has already nearly tripled its 2011 point output and has held opponents to an average of 13.5 points per game.
With a game this week against a winless Geibel Catholic team, it is likely that Avella will move to 5-0, which would be the program's best start since the 1994 season.
Ambridge, too, has seen signs of improvement this season. The Bridgers are now 2-2 and have already surpassed their win total from 2011, when they finished 1-8.
The Bridgers are still struggling on offense, averaging 16.3 points per game, but their defense has made significant strides, giving up 20.8 points per game, down from last season when it gave up 38 per game. Ambridge coach Neil Tkatch said that many of his team's defensive struggles last season were due to having to play underclassmen at key positions. The Bridgers also have a new defensive coordinator this season.
Two of Ambridge's most difficult games -- against Class AA No. 1 Aliquippa and at Class AAA No. 5 West Allegheny -- are out of the way, but three of the Bridgers' final five games are against teams that are .500 or better.
Quaker Valley is also experiencing a turnaround this season, as it is 2-2 after going 3-7 in 2011. Thus far, this season has represented another gradual step forward for the Quaker Valley program. Three years ago, the Quakers finished the season winless, followed that up with a one-win 2010 campaign before reaching three wins last season.
Unfortunately for the Quakers, things will not get easier as their next three opponents -- Steel Valley, South Fayette and Seton-LaSalle -- are a combined 10-2 and account for two of the top five ranked teams in Class AA.
A final one, West Allegheny, isn't a surprise -- it was ranked the No. 5 team in Class AAA to start the season and has remained in that position -- but its 4-0 record has already almost surpassed its five wins from a year ago.
The schedule will get more challenging for the Indians, though, as just one of their five remaining games is against a team with a losing record.
Four weeks of play into the 2012 season have produced some closely contested games and thrilling finishes in the WPIAL, but last weekend in the West Xtra region was more defined by easy wins than anything.
The 10 games over the weekend involving teams from the west were decided by an average of 22.7 points. The winning margin in just three of those games was within single digits, seven of the wins were by more than two possessions and five were decided by 20 points or more.
By taking care of visiting Beaver Falls with a 34-28 win last Saturday night, Beaver cleared its first major hurdle of the season after winning its first three games over teams with a combined 2-10 record.
With the victory, the undefeated Bobcats not only scored more than 30 points on a Tigers defense that was allowing just 4.3 points per game, but more importantly beat Beaver Falls for the first time since 2005.
Beaver's next four games are against teams with losing records, but its biggest test of the season comes in the regular season finale, as it takes on Class AA No. 1 Aliquippa in a game that will likely decide the Midwestern Conference champion.
With alumni such as Darrelle Revis and Ty Law who went on to NFL stardom, it's not a revelation that Aliquippa produces elite defensive players. In fact, it's a tradition that has apparently continued into this season.
The Quips defense has given up only seven points this season, tying it for third among all WPIAL teams (Class AAAA No. 4 Central Catholic is first with three points allowed). The team's total margin of victory of 207 is the highest in the WPIAL.