The band is taking its place along the sideline and the dry-erase boards are plotting their second-half strategies in the locker room. It's Week 6 of the high school football season -- halftime -- and teams are emerging and fading as the midpoint sets up under center.
Several East Xtra region teams have played up to expectations thus far, many have figured things out and are turning programs around, while some, either due to injuries or inexperience, are struggling for that elusive "W."
In WPIAL Class AAAA, Gateway finished the season 9-3 last year and was ranked second in the Post-Gazette's preseason poll. The Gators (5-0, 5-0) have done little to tarnish that prediction, leading the Foothills Conference by a game over Penn-Trafford (4-1, 4-0) while climbing to No. 3 in the PIAA rankings.
Penn-Trafford also has continued its winning ways. The Warriors, fresh off their first conference championship since 2001, were hit hard by graduation but are in a nice position to return to the postseason. Their regular season ends, however, with difficult conference matchups against Gateway and Hempfield Area.
One of the Foothills Conference surprises is Hempfield. The Spartans won just one game last year but are in third place with a 3-2 record under first-year coach Rich Bowen.
Central Catholic slipped for the first time last week, losing to Seneca Valley in the Northern Eight Conference to drop out of the Post-Gazette rankings, but the Vikings (4-1, 3-1) are just about a lock to return to the postseason. After not having allowed a touchdown through the first four weeks of the season, Central Catholic was torched for 34 points in a 34-7 loss to the Raiders.
Woodland Hills, which graduated eight all-conference players from last season, is locked in a logjam in the Southeastern Conference. The Wolverines are 3-2 overall, 2-2 in conference play and tied with Peters Township and Penn Hills for fourth place.
In Class AAA, Franklin Regional started the season ranked No. 1 but the Panthers were upset by Mars Area in the first week in the Greater Allegheny Conference. The Panthers (4-1, 3-1) have made eight consecutive playoff appearances and, although tied with Hampton, Knoch and Hollidaysburg in the conference standings, control their own destiny with games against all three in consecutive weeks beginning Friday night at Knoch.
Burrell has stormed onto the Class AA scene and is the Post-Gazette's fifth-ranked team. The Bucs (5-0, 4-0) lead the Allegheny Conference by a half game over Freeport (4-1, 4-1), but take on the Yellowjackets Friday night at Burrell Stadium. After Freeport, Burrell's three remaining opponents have a combined three conference victories.
Surprising Valley (3-2, 3-2) also is jockeying for Class AA postseason position. The Vikings competed in Class AAA last season where they finished 0-8 out of the Greater Allegheny Conference. They entered this season lugging a 22-game losing streak under first-year coach Chad Walsh and have three remaining conference games with only Kittanning (2-3, 2-2) Oct. 19 at .500 or above in the conference.
Competing in the WPIAL for the first time, Imani Christian is poised for the postseason out of the Black Hills Conference. After top-ranked Clairton, which is at a level all its own, Imani Christian, Bishop Canevin and Monessen all stand tied at 4-1 in the conference. The Saints take on Monessen Oct. 12 but close out the regular season at Clairton.
No. 1 North Allegheny and No. 2 Gateway have owned the top two spots in the Post-Gazette's Class AAAA rankings the entire season and collide Friday night in a roll-up-the-sleeves non-conference battle at Gateway's Antimarino Stadium. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.
The Gators defense, which has allowed just 56 points this season, will be put to the test as North Allegheny's Mack Leftwich is one of the top quarterbacks in the WPIAL. Leftwich, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound senior, has completed 51 of 78 passes this season for 1,180 yards -- tops in the WPIAL -- with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Riverview, which hadn't opened a season 0-4 since 1987, threw that streak to the ground Saturday when Tim Wagner scored two touchdowns to spark a 15-12 victory against Wilkinsburg (0-5) in a Class A Eastern Conference game. Wagner, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound senior, is the Raiders (1-4) leading receiver with nine catches for 211 yards, an average of 23.4 yards per catch.
Rick Davis: email@example.com or 412-263-3789