Gateway High School receiver and defensive back Montae Nicholson, center, makes a tackle during practice Aug. 14 in Monroeville.
By Ryan Riordan Tri-State Sports & News Service
No WPIAL Class AAAA conference struggled more in the WPIAL postseason than the Foothills Conference.
The WPIAL decided to go from four Class AAAA conferences to three for the 2012-2013 cycle, and none of the five Foothills Conference teams that qualified for postseason played made it past the quarterfinals.
In fact, Gateway was the only team to win its first round playoff game.
"Our conference gets a bad rap, but I think their a lot of improved teams," said Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane. "And McKeesport is getting George Smith back and I expect them to do great things. Gateway is loaded and is always good."
The Gators haven't won a WPIAL title since 1986, but as always, should be WPIAL contenders again this season with arguably more Division I talent than any team in the classification.
Penn-Trafford has to replace its quarterback, but returns the majority of its roster from last season's seven-win team.
McKeesport won five games last season, but Smith comes back after taking four years off from the program. In 28 years with the Tigers, Smith won two WPIAL and two PIAA titles.
Hempfield hasn't had a winning season since 1997 and Kiski Area hasn't been above .500 in a year since 2003. But the two schools, which combined for a total of five wins in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, each won four games last season and return a lot of talent this season.
And it's always tough to play at Altoona.
Latrobe and Norwin tied for last in the conference last season, but they return two of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league in the Wildcats' Logan Carns and the Knights' Nick Amendola.
In ESPN's latest Class of 2014 recruiting rankings for Pennsylvania, four of the top 25 players and five of the top 41 all play for Gateway.
Not a bad situation to walk into for new coach Donnie Militzer.
"The great thing about coming to Gateway is the tradition," said Militzer, who replaces Terry Smith. "It's built-in already."
Despite the talent the Gators always seem to possess, the school hasn't won a WPIAL title since 1986.
"I'm here to win championships," said Militzer. "That's pressure, but pressure I like. We all want to finish the season at Heinz Field and in Hershey."
Gateway has the athletes to accomplish the feat.
Montae Nicholson, the PIAA 110-meter hurdle champion, burst onto the scene last season and is now the No. 1-ranked recruit in the state by Rivals and No. 4 by ESPN.
He's joined at receiver and in the secondary by three other Division I recruits in Ricky Rogers, Anthony Davis and Delvon Randall.
All of which should make it easier on Jimmy Moore, who has to replace Fab 22 quarterback Thomas Woodson.
"With these guys, Jimmy can just throw it to an area and they'll catch it," said Militzer. "He doesn't have to throw the perfect ball."
The Gators lost their top three rushers from last season, and Zaihe Regus (5-11, 220, Sr.), Devin Pinkett (5-5, 175, Sr.) and Adam White (5-7, 175, So.) will battle for carries this fall.
The Gators return Steven Gross (6-2, 240, Sr.) and four-year starter Joe Robak (6-5, 260, Sr.) on the offensive line.
Gateway's stellar secondary will benefit from the pressure applied up front by Brenon Thrift (6-4, 240, Sr., TE/DE), a Temple recruit and the Class of 2014's No. 25-ranked player in the state according to ESPN.
After winning a combined two games in 2010-11, Hempfield started 2-0 last season for the first time since 2004 under first-year head coach Rich Bowen.
The Spartans were 3-1 before the injury bug struck and they lost five of their final six games.
But the Spartans did qualify for the playoffs, and with the majority of their starting lineup returning, they have a chance to have their first winning season since 1997.
"The injury bug hurt us last year, but it may have helped us in the long run," said Bowen. "A lot of guys got experience that are back this year."
Ty George (6-4, 200, Sr.) returns as the starting quarterback, but just like last year, DeLorian Day (6-1, 170, Sr.) will come in and take some snaps behind center, too. In 2012, the duo combined for 1,353 passing yards and 881 rushing yards.
All-conference running back Joey DeFloria (5-11, 185, Sr.) also returns, and he'll have five linemen in front of him who have previous starting experience in Antonio Moffa (5-9, 190, Sr.), Matt Chapman (5-11, 225, Sr.), Nathan Fleck (6-2, 235, Sr.), Tony Pilato (6-7, 300, Jr.) and Max Adams (6-2, 240, Sr.).
Adams, an all-conference selection on defense last season, will anchor the defensive line with Ian Lewandowski (6-2, 225, Sr.).
Leading tackler Josh Kempka (6-1, 205) returns at linebacker, while all-conference safety Day and leads an experienced secondary.
Under the direction of first-year coach Dave Heavner, Kiski Area won one more game last season than it had in the previous two seasons combined.
The Cavaliers went 4-6 overall, losing in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs to Upper St. Clair.
It was the first time the Cavs made the playoffs since 2006, and Kiski is still looking for its first playoff victory since 1990.
"It's a work in progress," said Heavner. "The history of Kiski football wasn't pretty.
"Certainly things needed to be changed and we need more than one season. It's an ongoing process, but we're working on learning how to win and just improving each day. It's going to take more than just this season."
The Cavs return nine starters on offense and nine on defense from last season, but will have to replace quarterback Ricardo Carter, who threw for 690 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Carter's backup last season, Chad Kuhn (6-1, 190, Soph.), will battle for the starting spot this season with converted wide receiver Billy Johnson (6-1, 170, Sr.).
The winner will have the benefit of having one of the better young running backs behind him. Lincoln Clayton (6-1, 190, Soph., RB/LB) ran for 579 yards last season.
Three of the team's top targets last season also return in all-conference selection Joey Brungo (6-2, 190, Sr., WR/DB), Tanner George (5-10, 175, Sr. WR/DB) and Shane Kuhn (6-4, 230, Sr., TE/LB).
Up front, guards Sam Bowser (6-0, 230, Sr.) and Andrew Yohe (6-3, 290, Sr.) and center Anthony Iacovino (5-10, 200, Sr.) are returning starters.
Kuhn will lead the defense from his linebacker spot after being selected to the all-conference first team last season.
Jesse Noble (6-5, 210, Sr.) and Bowser will anchor the defensive line while Brungo and second-team all-conference defensive back Patrick Turner (6-1, 190, Sr.) return in the secondary.
After back-to-back five-win seasons in 2010 and 2011, the Wildcats dropped down to two wins in 2012.
But that hasn't diminished coach Ray Reitz's goals for this season.
"Our goals are to have a home playoff game and be in contention to win the conference," Reitz said. "It's going to be a real good league this year, but we're much further ahead now than we were at this time last year. We were introducing a new offense and were very young."
Logan Carns (6-3, 205, Sr.), who has started at quarterback since the last game of his freshman year, had more than 1,200 yards rushing and passing last season.
"Every Division I team is missing the boat on him," said Reitz.
Second-leading rusher Lucas Monteparte (6-1, 205, Jr.) also returns in the backfield after rushing for 363 yards last season and will be running behind an offensive line that returns all five starters.
On defense, Cody Henry (6-2, 320, Sr., G/NT), Dylan Kovatch (6-1, 225, Sr., TE/DE) and Alec Hoopes (5-9, 175, Jr., RB/S) are all multiple-year starters.
George Smith, who stepped down as McKeesport coach in 2009, is returning to coach the Tigers this season and brings his flexbone offense with him.
He'll have to replace quarterback Eddie Stockett and running back/linebacker Hodari Christian.
Stockett, the team's quarterback, threw for 522 yards and rushed for a team-best 660 yards.
Christian ran for 546 yards and was a force from his linebacker position on defense. He is now playing at West Virginia University.
David Queen (5-11, 200, Sr.) will likely get the first crack at the job, but TyWann Smith (6-1, 160, Jr.) may also see time behind center.
"Developing a quarterback to run the option is goal No. 1," said George Smith. "The second goal is teaching the kids to be disciplined."
Smith will use a bunch of players at his fullback and wingback positions, with Allen Wright (5-9, 160, Sr., WB/DB) and Mikell Moore (6-1, 225, Sr., NT/FB) the most experienced in the group.
The offensive line returns all five starters, led by center Jaylin Short (5-9, 250, Sr.) and tackles Tom Fichera (5-11, 255, Sr.) and Evander Dillard (6-1, 270, Jr.).
Dillard will also play on the defensive line with returning starter David Hatcher (5-11, 220, Sr.).
Justice Smith (6-1, 205, Jr.), Carlos Hudson (6-1, 190, Sr.) and James Wyatt (6-2, 195, Sr.) will man the linebacker spots, while Khaleke Hudson (5-11, 190, So.), who started at linebacker last season, will move to safety this season.
The Knights had a tough time last season, getting outscored, 299-140, in losing seven of their nine games.
But the silver lining was they developed their quarterback of the future.
Nick Amendola (6-0, 200, Soph.) started the majority of the time in his freshman season and finished with a combined rushing and passing total of 1,160 yards. He threw for four touchdowns and ran for five.
"He's a really valuable player for us," said fourth-year Norwin coach Art Tragesser. "He can do a lot of things. We may even let him play defense this year. He's such a great athlete and there are so many ways we can use him."
Two-way players Kyle Baum (6-2, 185, Sr., WR/DB), Billy Zetezalo (5-10, 190, Sr., WR/DL) and Logan Deri (6-1, 170, Jr., WR/DB) will be Amendola's top targets. In the backfield, Zack Tinsley (5-10, 200, Sr., RB/LB) will step into the starting running back role after seeing part-time action last season.
Up front, Devin McCurdy (6-0, 195, Sr., OL/LB) Luke Milcic (6-3, 255, Sr., OL/DL) and Garrett Cockeram (6-1, 205, Sr., OL/DL) are returning starters on both sides of the ball.
After winning their first playoff game in 12 seasons in 2011, Penn-Trafford followed up with seven wins last season despite fielding a relatively young roster.
"We hope to improve," said Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane, who is entering his fifth year with the Warriors. "We got a lot of experience last season and that's big. We have high expectations this season."
The Warriors return both parts of their strong running back duo of Devin Austin (5-9, 170, Jr.) and Tom Stinelli (5-10, 195, Sr.). The pair combined for 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns last season.
"We have two really good running backs," Ruane said. "Devin's the speed guy and Tom is more of a power back. But both can do what the other guy can do."
Ryan Marasti (6-0, 185, Sr.), who Ruane calls the team's best athlete, returns at wide receiver and cornerback, while all-conference selection Adam Polakovsky (6-2, 260, Sr.) and John Wilkie (5-10, 265, Sr.) return on the line.
Wilkie is also the team's nose tackle and was an all-conference selection at the position last season.
Stinelli, Josh McElrone (5-11, 215, Sr.) and Fred Cook (5-10, 225, Sr.) all return at linebacker, while Marasti, Jack Brady (6-2, 250, Sr.) and Brendan Reddy (5-11, 195, Sr.) are returning starters in the secondary.
One position the team has to break in a new starter at is quarterback, where Brett Laffoon (6-2, 180, Soph.) will replace Dorian Stevens, who threw for 976 yards and 10 touchdowns and ran for another 476 yards in 2012.